Retired Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White LAW ’46, a football hero whose reputation for clear-headed legal thinking and a hardheaded personality was honed through three decades on the nation’s highest court, died Monday. He was 84.
White served on the court for 31 years before retiring in 1993. In the court’s history, only eight men served longer. His seat was filled by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
With White’s death, there are no living former Supreme Court justices. He had been ill much of the last two years and looked frail during his rare appearances at the Supreme Court. White had kept a court office since his retirement, but closed it last year and moved back to his native Colorado, a signal to many that his health was perilous.
White died Monday morning in Denver, of complications from pneumonia, a statement from the Supreme Court said.
Appointed by President Kennedy in 1962, White soon became a dissenter from many of the court’s liberal rulings of the 1960s.
Later in his tenure, he was a consistent, if independent, member of the court’s increasingly conservative majority. A hard-liner on law-and-order issues, White often spoke for the court in decisions enhancing police authority.
He dissented from the court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, and thereafter steadfastly voted in favor of allowing states to regulate, or even outlaw, abortion.
White’s record on other divisive social issues was mixed.
He voted to give federal courts broad power to order racial desegregation of the nation’s public schools, and often sided with the court’s liberal wing in civil rights disputes. But he later opposed broad use of “affirmative action” to remedy past discrimination in employment.
White’s votes in free-speech and free-press cases were mixed, but generally he opposed expansive freedom-of-expression rights. He favored greater governmental accommodation of religion — in ways more liberal justices considered violations of the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
His opinion writing reflected his essential character: precise, methodical and impatient to finish the job.
On the bench, the gravelly voiced White was a tough interrogator of the lawyers who appeared before the court. His questions were brief and direct, and he had zero tolerance for the ill-prepared or longwinded.
In making Byron Raymond White his first Supreme Court pick, Kennedy said White had “excelled in everything he had attempted.”
White’s academic record, professional career and the sports pages backed up that assertion.
The valedictorian of his high school and University of Colorado class, White went on to study at Oxford and become a high-honors graduate of the Yale Law School.
But to a generation of American sports fans he was better known as “Whizzer” White, the football player who won All-America honors and National Football League stardom. He later came to hate the nickname.
Throughout his long judicial career, White was known as one of the high court’s clearest thinkers — a centrist who often provided key votes on divisive issues.
White wrote for the court when it ruled that the Constitution did not allow news reporters to withhold confidential information from grand juries.
White also authored decisions that struck down capital punishment for rapists, declared nude dancing to be a constitutionally protected form of expression, exempted “kiddie porn” from free-speech protections, and stripped presidential Cabinet members of the absolute immunity form civil lawsuits they once enjoyed.
White was born June 8, 1917, in Fort Collins, Colo., but grew up in tiny Wellington, where his father was a lumber dealer and staunch Republican mayor.
He attended public schools there, and went on to the University of Colorado. Despite part-time work and his involvement in three sports, White finished first in the 267-member class of 1938.
By the end of his senior year, White was the best-known collegiate football player in the nation — a runner, passer and punter of unmatched accomplishments.
He became the highest-paid professional football player in 1938 when the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers offered him $15,800 for a one-year contract.