The landmark abortion case of Roe v. Wade was decided by what theoretically should have been a "conservative" Supreme Court. The decision recognized a woman’s right to make individual medical decisions, including abortion in line with the constitutional right to privacy. The Court ruled that the state had no interests in a woman’s pregnancy in the first trimester and the woman thus had a right to terminate the pregnancy. The decision remains the most controversial of the Supreme Court’s rulings in the US.
Warren Burger (appointed by Richard Nixon)
Born in Minnesota in 1907, Burger studied at the University of Minnesota and St. Paul College of Law, which is currently William Mitchell College. Burger proceeded to join the Boyesen Otis and Faricy firm, which has now become Moore, Costello, and Hart, and also taught at his alma mater of William Mitchell College. Burger joined the Republican politics, first supporting Republican Presidential hopeful, Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen then delivering the Minnesota delegation at the Republican delegation for nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower. Burger was appointed as Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division of the Justice Department by the newly elected President Eisenhower. Burger succeeded Earl Warren as the Chief Justice of the US after his appointment by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Throughout his law career, Burger had been a notable conservative. His stances included opposition to gay rights and a belief in checks and balances in the government. The most controversial ruling of the Burger court remains Roe v. Wade, when Burger, who had previously opposed abortion, voted to legalize abortion with the majority.
William O. Douglas (appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Douglas was born in 1898 in Minnesota, and attended Whitman College and Columbia University. After Colombia’s and Yale’s faculties, Douglas became head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1937. He was appointed by the Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1939, succeeding Louis Brandeis. Douglas championed for civil libertarianism, heavily advocating for the Bill of Rights and opposed the Vietnam War and government wiretapping. Douglas was also an advocate for the outdoors and an outspoken environmentalist. Being a liberal, William O. Douglas voted to legalize abortion.
Thurgood Marshall (appointed by Lyndon Johnson)
Born in 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, Thurgood Marshall studied at Howard University School of Law and Lincoln University. Marshall started his law firm in Baltimore and was not highly successful due to inadequate experience. He began working for the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1934, rising through the ranks to become the association’s chief counsel. Marshall reached national prominence for his pursuit of individual rights, in particular for minorities. He was appointed the first African-American Associate Justice to the Supreme Court in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson. Marshall voted for the right to abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision.
Lewis Powell (appointed by Richard Nixon)
Lewis Powell was born in 1907 in Virginia, and attended Washington and Lee University and Harvard Law School. Powell worked in the firm of Hunton, Williams, Gay and Moore from 1935, becoming a partner three years later. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, rising in ranks to become a colonel. He continued to work as an attorney after the war and served as President of the American Bar Association, American Bar Foundation, and American College of Trial Lawyers. At 64 years of age, Powell was nominated as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1972 by Richard Nixon. Although he had taken conservative stances such as upholding sodomy laws and the death penalty despite an apparent racial imbalance in the people executed, Powell voted to legalize abortion.
Potter Stewart (appointed by Dwight Eisenhower)
Potter Stewart was born in 1915 in Jackson, Michigan, and studied at Yale Law School and Yale University. Stewart served as a naval officer during WWII, rising to the rank of lieutenant junior grade. He joined private practice at Dinsmore and Shohl in Cincinnati, and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in 1954. He was named an Associate Justice by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Stewart became a notable centrist, approaching each case by merits rather than political ideologies. He is renowned for his criminal justice reform, and he voted for abortion as a right to privacy.
Harry Blackmun (appointed by Richard Nixon)
Born in 1908 in Nashville, Illinois, Blackmun studied at Harvard Law School and Harvard University. He worked as a law clerk, taught at William Mitchell College of Law, joined the private practice, and became general counsel for the Mayo Clinic in 1950. He was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1959 by President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1970, Blackmun was nominated by President Richard Nixon as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. At the start of his tenure, Blackmun was conservative in his views, championing for the separation of the Church and State and upholding the death penalty. Over the years, however, he adopted a liberal approach and authored the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. He increasingly advocated for affirmative action, immigrant’s rights and even opposed the death penalty towards the end of his tenure.
William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (appointed by Dwight Eisenhower)
William Joseph Brennan, Jr. was born in 1906 in New Jersey, and educated at Wharton School of Commerce and Finance, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. He started his career as a trial lawyer and served in World War II, reaching the rank of Colonel. He was then appointed to the superior court in 1949 by New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll, who also appointed him to the Supreme Court of New Jersey in 1951. Brennan was named an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower. Brennan was a huge believer in the fundamental rights of an individual, affirmative action, and gender equality and opposed the death penalty. A staunch Roman Catholic himself, Brennan supported the separation of the Church and the State. Before the Roe v. Wade decision, Brennan had assented to the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision, striking a law which made the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried women illegal. Being a liberal, Brennan voted to legalize abortion.
Dissenting Opinion William Rehnquist (appointed by Richard Nixon)
Born in 1924 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rehnquist studied at Kenyon College, Stanford University, Stanford Law School, and Harvard University. He worked as a law clerk under Justice Robert Jackson in Washington D.C. where he penned a controversial memo which supported the separate-but-equal approach to segregation as taken by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. When taken to task Rehnquist asserted that the memo reflected Justice Jackson’s stance and not his. He joined a private practice in 1953 in Arizona and became active in Republican politics. He served as Assistant Attorney General for the office of legal counsel from 1969 and was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Rehnquist was a conservative, and he often voted parallel to his political and legal beliefs. He was against school desegregation and favored states’ rights, capital punishment, and the school prayer. In the Roe v. Wade decision, Rehnquist was against abortion, arguing by state power. He was appointed as Chief Justice in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.
Dissenting Opinion Byron White (appointed by John F. Kennedy)
Bryon White was born in 1917 in Fort Collins, Colorado, and was educated at Yale Law School and the University of Oxford. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he met the future President John F. Kennedy. He worked as a law clerk and in private practice and later ran campaigns for John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy appointed him Deputy Attorney General and nominated him as Associate Justice to the Supreme Court in 1962. White was a notable conservative, and he dissented in the Roe v. Wade decision on what he viewed as disregard for potential life.
The Role of Conservative Judges in the Roe versus Wade Decision
The Roe v. Wade decision was supported by five Republican-appointed Justices. The five justices worked hand in hand to make the landmark ruling, with Harry Blackmun, a former counsel to the Mayo Clinic, drafting it. After a series of argument, Lewis Powell’s element of the viability of the fetus was agreed, this would become the most notable characteristic of the decision. The Justices used the three-part test in the decision which stated that a fetus could not be recognized as a person until viability. It was on this foundation that the decision was made.
Who is Lewis Powell?
Lewis Powell was born in 1907 in Virginia, and attended Washington and Lee University and Harvard Law School. Powell worked in the firm of Hunton, Williams, Gay and Moore from 1935, becoming a partner three years later.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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