Former Justice White dies at 84

Rhodes scholar played college, pro football

was intimidating in courtroom

April 16, 2002|By Aaron Epstein | Aaron Epstein,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Former Supreme Court Justice Byron Raymond White, who lived two American dreams by gaining national fame on the football field and reaching the pinnacle of the legal profession, died yesterday in Denver of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.

President John F. Kennedy, who appointed Justice White to the nation's highest court, once said he "excelled in everything he had attempted" - and Mr. Kennedy was right. Among his achievements, Justice White was a Rhodes scholar, decorated war veteran and honors graduate of Yale Law School.

In the late 1930s, "Whizzer" White was renowned as a bruising, All-America halfback who ran over defenders, fired passes to speedy receivers and even punted and kicked field goals.

On the bench, he was hard to pin down, too. In his 31 years on the Supreme Court, from 1962 to 1993, he occasionally cut left, frequently swept right and often dodged ideological labels by heading up the middle.

His opinions tended to be austere and practical, focusing on the facts and consequences of a ruling rather than any underlying philosophy or dogma.

In court, he seemed humorless and gruff, sometimes firing questions that froze or befuddled lawyers. He refused to read excerpts from his opinions in open court, calling it "a waste of time."

But away from the bench, friends said, he was a pleasant companion who would return to Denver nearly every summer for fly-fishing and golf and to look up old courthouse cronies.

His clerks found him intimidating until they got to know him. For as long as he was physically able, he would interrupt work to challenge his clerks to a basketball game in the gym, By all accounts, he was aggressive on that court, too.

At the beginning of his judicial career, Justice White voted with the court's liberals in civil-rights cases. But he grew more conservative on those and other issues as the years went by.

For example, Justice White joined the liberals in endorsing voluntary affirmative action in private employment in 1979. But in 1987, when the court approved job preferences for women for the first time, he joined a blistering dissent declaring that the 1979 ruling should be reversed.

In 1989, he wrote a 5-4 decision that made it harder for racial minorities and women to win bias suits against employers.

A year later, as if to underscore his unpredictability, Justice White stunned conservatives by providing the pivotal vote in a 5-4 decision upholding the power of Congress to encourage diversity in government-regulated businesses. Analysts said he was demonstrating a conservative deference to Congress, not a change on affirmative action.

Justice White's rightward evolution was evident, too, in his treatment of privacy issues.

In the 1965 landmark case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, he concurred with the liberals in overturning a state law that barred sales of contraceptives, even to married couples.

Eight years later, Griswold formed the basis for the Roe vs. Wade ruling that gave women a privacy right to choose abortion. But Justice White joined the dissenters, deploring what he saw as the court's view that "the convenience of the pregnant mother" was more important than "the existence and development of the life or potential life that she carries."

He was most consistent in criminal cases, generally coming down on the side of police and prosecutors.

Born to a poor family in Fort Collins, Colo., Byron White became a famous triple-threat halfback at the University of Colorado who loathed his nickname of "Whizzer."

Justice White graduated first in his class in 1937. The next year, he played professional football for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later renamed the Steelers) for $15,800.

"How can I refuse an offer like that?" he said. "It will pay my way through law school."

In 1939 he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. The start of World War II cut short his studies in England but not before he made a friend who was to influence the course of his career: John F. Kennedy, son of the U.S. ambassador.

He obtained his Yale law degree in 1946. In 1962, when Justice Charles Whittaker announced his retirement, President Kennedy chose Justice White for the high court. He was only 44.

He is survived by his wife, Marion; a son, Charles Byron White; and a daughter, Nancy White Lippe. No funeral plans were announced.

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