Byron White

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Byron White

Byron Raymond White (June 8, 1917April 15, 2002) won fame both as a bruising running back and as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Appointed to the court by John F. Kennedy in 1962, he served until his retirement in 1993.

He was born in Fort Collins, Colorado and died in Denver at the age of 84 from complications of pneumonia.

In the 1930s, White was a star football player for the University of Colorado, where he acquired the nickname "Whizzer", which he later came to despise. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where his stay was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. During World War II, White served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy stationed in the Pacific Theatre, writing the intelligence report on the sinking of future President John F. Kennedy's PT 109. After the war, he played running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions.

White then went on to Yale law school, where he graduated first in his class. After serving as a law clerk to Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson, White returned to Denver, where he practiced law for a number of years. During the 1960 presidential campaign, White put his football celebrity to use as chair of John F. Kennedy's campaign in Colorado. During the Kennedy administration, White served as Deputy Attorney General, the number two man in the Justice Department, under Robert F. Kennedy. Acquiring renown within the Kennedy Administration for his humble manner and sharp mind, he was appointed by Kennedy in 1962 to succeed Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who had taken ill.

During his service on the high court, White wrote the most opinions of any justice in Supreme Court history. His votes and opinions on the bench reflect an ideology that has been notoriously difficult for popular journalists and legal scholars alike to pin down. White often took a narrow, fact-specific view of cases before the Court, and, in the tradition of the New Deal, frequently supported a broad view of governmental powers. He consistently voted against creating Constitutional restrictions on the police, dissenting in the landmark 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona.

Frequently a critic of the doctrine of "substantive due process," he also dissented in the controversial 1973 case of Roe v. Wade regarding state restrictions on abortions, and continued to argue for the overturning of that decision. But White voted to strike down a state ban on contraceptives in the famous 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut. White wrote the majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) which upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law against a "substantive due process" attack. In 1998 the Georgia state supreme court invalidated the law on state constitutional grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Bowers decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

White also took a middle course on the issue of the death penalty: he was one of five justices who voted in Furman v. Georgia (1972) to strike down several state capital punishment statutes, voicing concern over the arbitrariness with which the death penalty was administered. The Furman decision effectively ended capital punishment in the U.S. for the remainder of the 1970s. White, however, was not against the death penalty in all forms: he voted to uphold the death penalty statutes at issue in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), even the mandatory death penalty schemes struck down by the Court. White accepted the position that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution required that all punishments be "proportional" to the crime; thus, he wrote the opinion in Coker v. Georgia (1977) which invalidated the death penalty for rape of a 16-year old married woman.

White consistently supported the Court's post-Brown attempts to fully desegregate public schools, even through the controversial line of forced busing cases. He voted to uphold affirmative action remedies to racial inequality in the famous Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case of 1978, but later voted to strike down an affirmative action plan in Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989).


Preceded by:
Charles Evans Whittaker
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
April 16, 1962June 28, 1993
Succeeded by:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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