Byron Raymond White (1917-2002) was a professional football player, Deputy U.S. Attorney General, and Supreme Court Justice. He served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1962 until he retired in 1993. White ruled on a number of landmark Supreme Court decisions including Roe v. Wade.
White was born in Fort Collins, Colorado on the 8th of June, 1917. His parents, Alpha Albert White and the former Maude Elizabeth Burger, moved the family to Wellington, Colorado, where Alpha White ran a lumber yard. Neither Alpha nor Maude completed their high school educations.
Byron White showed academic and athletic potential from a young age. As a first grader, he began helping with the harvest of sugar beets, which helped him learn endurance and speed. He graduated at the top of his 1934 high school class, earning a scholarship to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. White’s older brother Clayton Samuel (Sam) had also been high school valedictorian and earned the same scholarship.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, White joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and played halfback for the Colorado Buffaloes. White also played basketball and baseball. He was named an “All American” football player and was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. A local newspaper columnist gave the athlete his nickname, “Whizzer.” He did not care for the nickname. The Buffaloes played a perfect 8-0 season when White was a senior.
His jersey, number 24, was retired by the university. The College Football Hall of Fame admitted Byron White in 1954.
White served as student body president during his senior year. Upon graduating in 1938, White was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England. Oxford allowed White to delay his entrance into the program until 1939 since, days before learning of the scholarship, he had been drafted by professional football’s Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Pittsburgh Steelers).
Professional Football Career
“Whizzer” White played for the Pirates in 1938, leading the league in rushing. He was the highest-paid rookie that season. He missed the 1939 season due to studying in Oxford and, when the second World War broke out, returned to the United States to attend Yale Law School. During his time at Oxford, White met John F. Kennedy, whose father Joseph was serving as a U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time.
In 1940 and 1941, White played for the Detroit Lions. He again led the league in rushing in 1940. White made First Team All-Pro in the ‘38 and ‘40 seasons and Second Team All-Pro in the ‘41 season.
Naval Service in World War II
In 1942, White wanted to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He was colorblind, however, which kept him out of the Marines. Instead, he joined the Navy, where he served as an intelligence officer in the Pacific Theatre. White wrote the intelligence report that covered the PT-109 incident that involved future president John F. Kennedy.
He was awarded the Bronze Star twice during his service. It was during this time that White became acquainted with John Paul Stevens, who would also go on to become a Supreme Court Justice.
White chose not to continue his football career when the war ended. He returned to Yale Law School instead. White graduated with highest honors in 1946 and went to work as a law clerk for Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
That same year, White married Marion Lloyd Stearns, whose father had been president of the University of Colorado at Boulder while White attended the university. During the war, Stearns had served as a member of the Navy’s Women’s Reserve, also known as the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services or WAVES. White moved back to Colorado to live with his wife and practice law, and the couple would go on to have a son named Charles Byron (nicknamed Barney) and a daughter named Nancy.
The Whites were married until his death in 2002. Mrs. White passed away in 2009.
White practiced law at the firm known in later years as Davis Graham & Stubbs for about 14 years following the war. He rarely argued cases in court, more often offering legal services to the corporate world.
In 1960, White became involved in John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, serving as the chairman of Colorado’s Kennedy campaign. His celebrity as a former professional athlete helped him earn a platform. After Kennedy won the election, he appointed White to the office of Deputy Attorney General, the second in command at the Department of Justice under President Kennedy’s brother Robert.
Among White’s most significant accomplishments as Deputy Attorney General was negotiating with Governor John Malcolm Patterson of Alabama, a segregationist who was openly supported by the Ku Klux Klan. The Justice Department had an interest in protecting the Freedom Riders, an interracial group of civil rights protestors who challenged the refusal of Alabama and other Southern states to honor Supreme Court decisions that struck down segregation laws. Mob violence against the Freedom Riders, supported by state and local governments, was causing a state of near-lawlessness in Alabama, and White’s 1961 negotiations with the Democratic governor of the state possibly prevented even worse violence, rioting, and civil rights violations.
White was well-respected in the Justice Department for his humility, cool-headedness, and striking intellect.
Supreme Court Career
In 1962, Supreme Court Associate Justice Charles Whittaker had a nervous breakdown, recused himself from the case in front of him, and retired to private life. President Kennedy had to choose a replacement for Whittaker. Kennedy nominated White, saying, “He has excelled at everything. And I know that he will excel on the highest court in the land.”
Although appointed by the Kennedy administration, White was not known for being particularly liberal or progressive. He often sided with law enforcement officers, notably in Miranda v. Arizona, in which his dissenting opinion was the minority opinion. He was against laws that discriminated against Americans on the basis of sex or gender, in favor of state laws that outlawed homosexual sodomy, in favor of the right of Americans to use contraception, and consistently against the legalization of abortion.
White and Justice William Rehnquist were the only two members of the Supreme Court to vote against the Roe v. Wade decision that ruled abortion could be legalized due to the Constitutional interest in protecting the right to privacy. In the years following the decision, White frequently voiced the opinion that unborn persons have a right to life that the courts have an interest in protecting.
On the 20th of January, 1993, White administered the Oath of Office to Albert “Al” Gore, swearing in Gore as the Vice President of the United States. Gore had specifically requested White for this service. In that year, White retired and was replaced by the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Retirement and Later Life
When he retired in 1993, White was the 4th-longest serving Supreme Court Justice of those nominated or serving during the 20th century. During his tenure he wrote 994 opinions.
Byron White passed away on the 15th of April, 2002 in Denver, Colorado. He was 84 years old and had been suffering from complications related to pneumonia. In the Washington Post, then-President George W. Bush praised White as “a distinguished jurist who served his country with honor and dedication.”