W, White, Byron Raymond
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman
Edited By: Kermit L. Hall
White, Byron Raymond
(b. Fort Collins, Colo., 8 June 1917; d. Denver, Colo., 15 April 2002; interred Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Denver, Colo.), associate justice, 1962–1993. Byron White was born into a family of modest means in Fort Collins, Colorado. He spent his childhood in Wellington, a small agricultural community in northern Colorado, where his father worked in the lumber industry. The future justice attended the University of Colorado on scholarship, graduating in 1938 as valedictorian. White excelled in athletics, being voted All American in football and earning the nickname “Whizzer” for his talent as a running back. Following graduation, White played one season for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later called the Steelers) and led the league in rushing. In 1939, he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. When war erupted in Europe, White returned to the United States to study law at Yale and during the 1940–1941 season resumed his professional football career with the Detroit Lions. He joined the navy shortly after the United States entered the war and served in the Pacific. Upon cessation of hostilities, he married his college sweetheart Marion Stearns and completed law school at Yale with high honors in 1946. White clerked for Chief Justice Fred M. *Vinson in 1946–1947, after which he practiced law in his native Colorado.
When John F. Kennedy mounted his campaign for the presidency in 1960, White became an active supporter. The two had crossed paths three previous times—first when White studied in England and Kennedy’s father was ambassador to Great Britain, then again when both were naval officers in World War II, and finally in Washington, when White’s clerkship coincided with Kennedy’s first term in Congress. White initially headed the Kennedy forces in Colorado and then chaired “Citizens for Kennedy,” a national organization devoted to recruiting Republican and Independent voters. The new president rewarded White’s efforts by naming him deputy attorney general, a position in which he focused on the selection of lower court judges and on civil rights issues.
In 1962, Justice Charles *Whittaker announced his resignation, giving President Kennedy his first Supreme Court appointment. The president selected White, who was judged both extremely qualified and a supporter of New Frontier policies. White’s nomination was confirmed in the Senate by voice vote on 11 April. On 16 April, at the age of forty-four, White became the ninety-third justice of the Supreme Court.
White’s performance on the Court was one of nondoctrinaire pragmatism. His voting record, while consistent within specific policy areas, varied from liberal to quite conservative across a broad range of issues.
White’s most liberal positions were on discrimination questions. During the Warren Court era he steadfastly supported the *Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the *Voting Rights Act of 1965. He took similarly liberal positions on issues of sex and economic discrimination. In the 1980s, however, White often parted company with the Court’s liberal wing on questions of *affirmative action and minority set-aside programs.
On personal liberty issues, White was more likely to cast a conservative vote. He supported restrictions on pornographic materials, rejected special rights for reporters, approved sanctions against flag burners, and voted for greater accommodation between church and state. Although White recognized a constitutional right to *privacy in 1965, he consistently voted to sustain state restrictions on *abortions. Additionally, White wrote the majority opinion in *Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) upholding state sodomy laws against privacy right challenges.
(p. 1086) Justice White’s most consistently conservative rulings occurred in criminal rights cases. He dissented from the Court’s liberal rulings in *Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and *Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and supported the validity of *capital punishment laws. He was a critic of the *exclusionary rule in search and seizure cases and authored the 1984 majority opinions limiting that rule.
After serving thirty-one years (the tenth longest tenure in Court history), White retired in good health in 1993. In retirement he occasionally sat by designation as a court of appeals judge, and he chaired the Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals.
Dennis Hutchinson, The Man Who Once Was Whizzer White: A Portrait of Justice Byron R. White (1998).
Thomas G. Walker