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Supreme Court Justices

Byron White (1917-2002)

Byron White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado on June 8, 1917. He was intelligent, a gifted athlete, very disciplined, and a hard worker. He was raised in the small town of Wellington, Colorado, and obtained his high school diploma in 1930. He attended the University of Colorado on a scholarship. He graduated valedictorian of his college class, and was an All-America running back. He was given the nickname "Whizzer" in college, a name he despised. After graduation in 1938, White led the National Football League in rushing for the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers). In January 1939, White left for Oxford University to study law as a Rhodes Scholar. Before completing his studies, World War II erupted, and White returned to the United States, to study law at Yale University. After one year at Yale, White returned to the NFL in fall 1940, this time as a running back for the Detroit Lions. He attended Yale in spring 1941, and returned for a final professional football season in fall 1941. White was then commissioned in the Naval reserve. He remained in the Navy until September 1945, when he returned to Yale Law School to complete his degree. In Fall 1946, White was hired as a law clerk to the new Chief Justice, Fred Vinson.

After his clerkship, White moved back to Colorado to practice law in Denver. In 1960, he supported Jack Kennedy's bid for President. White and Kennedy had met when both were living in Europe in 1939, and White co-authored a Navy report examining why Kennedy's PT boat (PT 109) was struck and sank in the Pacific in World War II. After the 1960 election, White was appointed deputy attorney general. In April 1962, after the retirement of Charles Whittaker, JFK made Byron White his first appointment to the Supreme Court.

Despite the efforts of some commentators, White's record as a justice is not easily pigeonholed. He was strongly supportive of civil rights claims during his early years on the Court, and was a nationalist, not a strong believer in federalism. In affirmative action cases Justice White largely upheld federal efforts regarding affirmative action (see Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980)), but was skeptical about state and local affirmative action plans (see Richmond v. J.A. Croson (1989), joining opinion of Justice O'Connor). In constitutional criminal procedure cases, White usually but not always sided with the exercise of power by the government. For example, he dissented in Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which gave us the popularly known Miranda warnings issued before interrogating a person in custody. White narrowly interpreted free press claims, thus inviting media enmity. He was skeptical of the Court's broad interpretation of the non-establishment of religion clause, and was opposed to the Court's invocation of substantive due process in cases such as Roe v. Wade, in which he was one of two dissenters, and Bowers v. Hardwick, in which he wrote the majority opinion. He distrusted the expansive exercise of judicial power in favor of the exercise of power by the legislature. His biographer notes that he distrusted academics and intellectuals, and was opposed to strong notions of ideology on the part of members of the Court. He was "a complex figure who does little to clarify himself." Hutchinson, at 7.

White remained on the Court for 31 years, retiring in 1993 after the election of a Democrat, Bill Clinton, to the Office of President.

In 2001, White closed his office in the Supreme Court, and moved back to his home state of Colorado. He died on April 16, 2002.

White married Marion Lloyd Stearns of Colorado in June 1946. They had two children, Charles Byron (Barney) White and Nancy Pitkin White.

Further reading: Dennis J. Hutchinson, The Man Who Once was Whizzer White: A Portrait of Justice Byron R. White (1998).