Former Supreme Court justice Byron R. White, a son of the Colorado plains who reached the highest peaks of accomplishment in both athletics and the law, died yesterday in Denver of complications of pneumonia. He was 84.
White, a former All-American running back for the University of Colorado, was appointed to the court by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. He retired in 1993. The last surviving former justice, he was remembered yesterday as a forceful presence on the court -- an intensely private Renaissance man possessed of both a sharp legal mind and what Justice Antonin Scalia called "a painfully firm handshake."
"He came as close as anyone I have known to meriting Matthew Arnold's description of Sophocles," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said yesterday. "He 'saw life steadily and saw it whole.' "
In a written statement, President Bush recalled the justice as "a distinguished jurist who served his country with honor and dedication."
Former president Bill Clinton issued a statement noting that White "led a truly remarkable life and served on the Court as he lived -- with distinction, intelligence, and honor."
White's career spanned both the Warren court of the 1960s, which expanded the rights of racial minorities and erected new constitutional protections for criminal defendants, and the subsequent epoch during which the court, under Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and Rehnquist, partially rolled back the Warren court's legacy of liberal rulings.
In that turbulent time, White accumulated a right-of-center record that nevertheless defies easy ideological categorization, at least by today's terms.
"Jack Kennedy liberals were tough on communism, tough on crime and friendly with organized labor," said University of Chicago historian Dennis J. Hutchinson, a former White law clerk and biographer. "White fit that to a T." On the court, White backed federal enforcement of civil rights laws. He also opposed abortion rights, backed state laws criminalizing sex between gay men and generally supported law enforcement in criminal prosecutions.
A supporter of campaign finance reform, he dissented from part of the court's decision in Buckley v. Valeo in 1976, arguing that the court should have permitted Congress to impose even broader regulations on political money.
"Justice White was a great but unsung champion of equality in the political process," said Jamin B. Raskin, a law professor at American University. "He had a very strong real-world sense of politics that put him on the side of the reformers."
In 1971, White wrote a concurring opinion that allowed the New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, but he admitted to having reservations. "I do not say that in no circumstances would the First Amendment permit an injunction against publishing," he wrote, adding that he thought publication would likely harm the national interest.
Earlier, White had concurred in New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark 1964 decision that limited the right of public officials to collect damages in libel suits against the press. White would later say that he regretted concurring in that ruling.
White was in the majority when the court decided to strike down all state death penalty laws in 1972, and he voted with the majority again in 1976 when the court gave its conditional approval to reinstating the death penalty.
The consistent element in White's thinking, former law clerks and legal analysts said yesterday, was a vision of judicial restraint that obliged White to resist what he considered attempts to substitute the court's policy preferences for the judgments of the political branches of government.
Asked after his Senate confirmation hearing in 1962 to define the constitutional role of the Supreme Court, White answered simply, "To decide cases."
After the court ruled in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade that women have a right to an abortion in most circumstances, White remarked to a friend that "judges have an exaggerated view of their role in our polity," according to Hutchinson. White had dissented in the case.
"The court is most vulnerable and comes closest to illegitimacy when it deals with judge-made constitutional law having little or no cognizable roots in the language or design of the Constitution," he wrote for the court in Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 case in which a five-member majority, led by White, upheld Georgia's prosecution of a gay man, Michael Hardwick, for having consensual sex with another man.
Noting that Hardwick "insists that majority sentiments about the morality of homosexuality should be declared inadequate," White added: "We do not agree and are unpersuaded that the sodomy laws of some 25 states should be invalidated on this basis."
Byron R. White's life is the story of a strongly disciplined man who participated directly in many of the formative events of 20th century history.
He was born on June 8, 1917, in Fort Collins, Colo., and grew up in nearby Wellington, near the Wyoming border. His father was a lumber dealer who served as the Republican mayor of Wellington.
In high school, the future justice worked part time in sugar beet fields and as a railroad section hand, and he played football. He graduated with a straight-A average and was valedictorian of his class, winning a scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he became class valedictorian and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
White, a running back, made All-American in football in 1937 -- the first Colorado player ever to achieve that honor -- and led Colorado's basketball team to the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden in 1938.
Indeed, the NIT was largely created because of the clamor by New York sportswriters for an up-close look at the legendary scholar-athlete known as "Whizzer," Hutchinson said. White detested the nickname, and much of the fierceness with which he later shunned the media and guarded his privacy may have been rooted in his feelings that the New York sports press had reported on him unfairly, Hutchinson said.
Upon graduation in 1938, he won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, but he deferred it for a semester to play for the Pittsburgh franchise in the fledgling National Football League, which had offered him a salary of $15,800. "How could I refuse an offer like that?" White later recalled. "It will pay my way through law school."
At the time, White's salary was virtually unheard of. It was more than what anyone else in the NFL was being paid and was double what most players were getting. Some of them resented it. "I just wanted to find out what it feels like to have $15,000 worth of football player in my hands," Tuffy Leemans, of the New York Giants, said after bringing White down with a particularly hard tackle.
White led the league in rushing with 567 yards in 11 games and was named rookie of the year. In January 1939, he sailed for England, where he began his Rhodes scholarship. It was there that he met Kennedy, whose father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's ambassador to the Court of St. James's.
After World War II began with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, he broke off his studies to return to the United States and enter Yale University's law school. He also continued his professional football career, with the Detroit Lions in the 1940 and 1941 seasons. He led the league in rushing in 1940 with 514 yards and was named to the NFL All-Pro Team. In 1954, he would be admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame.
"I can say with confidence that we are never again going to see a Supreme Court justice who was first in his class at Yale Law School and led the NFL in rushing in the same year," former White law clerk Ron Klain, a Washington lawyer, said yesterday.
White joined the Navy in 1942 and served as an intelligence officer in the Pacific theater, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. There, he once again crossed paths with John Kennedy. White wrote the Navy's intelligence report on the sinking of Kennedy's PT-109, a naval action that would become part of the future president's mystique.
In the South Pacific, White also came to know a member of the current court, Justice John Paul Stevens, who was also serving in the Navy.
"I knew immediately he was the kind of person I would want as a friend," Stevens said in a statement yesterday.
After the war, White returned to Yale and received his law degree magna cum laude, then came to Washington as a law clerk to Fred M. Vinson, then chief justice of the United States. In this assignment, his path again crossed with that of Kennedy, who had just entered Congress as a member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts.
In 1947, White returned to Colorado, where he practiced law and specialized in corporate and antitrust issues. Until Kennedy entered the 1960 presidential race, White's political involvement was primarily limited to ward and local matters. But after Kennedy announced, White formed the Colorado Citizens for Kennedy Committee, which delivered 27 critical delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
In January 1961, he became deputy attorney general under Robert F. Kennedy. In that role, he screened candidates for federal judgeships and supervised civil rights lawsuits. In May 1961, he directed federal marshals who were sent to Montgomery, Ala., to put down rioting that accompanied Freedom Riders' demonstrations.
President Kennedy appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1962. White, then 44, had excelled in everything he had attempted in his life up until then, Kennedy said in announcing the selection. "And I know he will excel on the highest court in the land."
Terse even as a young man in Colorado, White established a reputation as one of the gruffer members of the court. Throughout his time on the bench, White made few public statements and tended to write brief opinions.
He was, former clerks said, the kind of justice who was not above throwing an elbow or two in pickup basketball games at the court's gym.
"He was paradoxical in his manners," said Washington lawyer David C. Frederick, a former law clerk. "He never said an unkind word about anybody, but he did not go out of his way to be warm and cuddly. If he finished talking with you, that was it."
Yet, Frederick added, he welcomed clerks' thoughts on a case even when he knew it would not coincide with his.
"He always used to say 'Two minds are better than one,' " Frederick said.
White's 31-year tenure on the court is the ninth-longest in history. Friends said yesterday that his decision to retire in 1993 was influenced by his desire to leave while still in good health, avoiding the situation that developed when Justice William O. Douglas lingered for months on the court while nearly incapacitated by illness.
White married Marion Stearns in 1946. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children, Charles Byron White and Nancy White Lippe, and six grandchildren.
White was succeeded on the court by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who still uses a book he gave her on how to run a Supreme Court office.
In the years since leaving the court, he periodically heard appeals court cases.
In declining health for about the past 18 months, one of White's last public appearances came during the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, when he observed oral arguments from the front row of the court's gallery.