Footnote in his 1972 opinion supporting the...

IN A

March 02, 1994

IN A footnote in his 1972 opinion supporting the constitutionality of capital punishment, Justice Blackmun hinted he might oppose it some day, and cited a pretty good authority for changing one's mind:

"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and 40 years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. . . . I know . . . that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. . . . Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Let us, as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils. . . ."

Thomas Jefferson, 1816.

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