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Obituaries

Byron White, 84; Ex-Supreme Court Justice

April 16, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Retired Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, whose fame as a college football great and star of the National Football League helped propel him to a long career on the nation's highest court, died of complications of pneumonia Monday in Denver at age 84. He was the last living former Supreme Court justice.

When White stepped down from the court in 1993, he was lauded for 31 years of service as a hard-working, no-nonsense jurist who steered a middle course and avoided broad pronouncements of law.

Appointed an associate justice in 1962 by President Kennedy, White supported the Supreme Court's drive to end racial segregation and to strengthen civil rights. He was not a conventional liberal, however.

Throughout his career, White defied labeling as a jurist--and he would have had it no other way. A thoroughgoing skeptic, he steered clear of what he saw as ideologues on the left or the right. He just decided cases and did so in terse opinions.

"Judges have an exaggerated view of their role," said White, who usually balked when his colleagues broke new ground.

His strongest opinions, in fact, were issued in dissent. He disagreed when the court's majority declared that criminal suspects have a right to remain silent in the Miranda ruling of 1966, and when it struck down laws restricting abortion in 1973.

He condemned the Roe vs. Wade decision as "an improvident and extravagant exercise ... of raw judicial power." He never accepted the right to abortion as a precedent and voted regularly to overrule it.

His landmark opinions were remarkably few. One exception was the 1986 case of Bowers vs. Hardwick, a ruling that has been widely condemned by constitutional scholars. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, White upheld Georgia's law that made homosexual sex a crime. To argue that the Constitution's right to privacy includes such conduct "is at best facetious," White wrote.

White was a well-respected figure and powerful influence within the court.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called him "a good colleague and a great friend. He came as close as anyone I have ever known to meriting Matthew Arnold's description of Sophocles: 'He saw life steadily and saw it whole.' All of us who served with him will miss him."

Justice John Paul Stevens met White at Pearl Harbor, where both were naval officers during World War II. "His friendship is one of the treasures of this tour of duty," he said. "He was the kind of person for whom respect, admiration and affection continue to increase as you learn more about him."

"Anyone who ever met Byron White will recall his painfully firm handshake. You had to squeeze back hard or he would hurt you," said Justice Antonin Scalia, who joined the court when White was 69. "I always thought that was an apt symbol for his role on this court.... If there is one adjective that never could, never would, be applied to Byron White, it is wishy-washy."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends," President Bush said in a statement. "Justice White was a distinguished jurist who served his country with honor and dedication."

White's resignation in 1993 cleared the way for the first Democratic appointee to the high court in a quarter-century. President Clinton chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the court, to fill White's seat.

Despite his long tenure on the Supreme Court and the many controversies he encountered, the justice never quite escaped his youthful legend as "Whizzer" White, one of the great college players of the 1930s and one of the first stars of the National Football League.

Byron Raymond White was born June 8, 1917, near Wellington, Colo., a small town at the base of the Rocky Mountains whose principal crop was sugar beets.

Though his father ran a lumberyard, young Byron--from the time he began first grade--made extra money by pulling beets, work that he said built his powerful arms.

He graduated first in his high school class, which earned him a scholarship to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Football was just a sidelight, he said, definitely secondary to academics. But in his senior year, he led Colorado to an undefeated season. A 6-foot-1 halfback, he had the speed to run around defenders but preferred to run over them.

"The guy had the strongest forearms and chest development I ever saw. He was hard as iron all over," said Frank Potts, an assistant coach during White's era. "He could blast tacklers out of the way with the forearm ... He wasn't dirty, just mean."

As a rusher and punt returner, White averaged 246 yards per game, a record that lasted for 51 years. He played defense as well.

Despite his football glory, White kept his campus job, doing kitchen duty at a fraternity house. He made the All-American football team and led his basketball team to the National Invitation Tournament in New York, then the equivalent of today's NCAA Final Four.

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