Byron R. White

Byron R. White Biography

Supreme Court Justice, Football Player, Athlete, Government Official, Lawyer (1917–2002)
President John F. Kennedy appointed Byron R. White deputy U.S. attorney general in 1961. A year later White was appointed to the Supreme Court where he served until 1993.


Byron R. White was born on June 8, 1917, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He played football with the Pittsburg Pirates and the Detroit Lions. He studied at the University of Oxford before studying law at Yale. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy named him deputy U.S. attorney general. One year later he was appointed to the Supreme Court. White remained on the court until he retired in 1993. He died in 2002.

Early Life

Born on June 8, 1917, in Fort Collins, Colorado, Byron Raymond White served on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than 30 years. He grew up in Wellington, Colorado, where his father ran a lumberyard and also served as the town's mayor for a time. Byron R. White began working when he was in the 1st grade, harvesting sugar beet crops. Laboring in the fields may have helped him develop his strength and stamina, which made him a leading high school athlete.

Excelling at both sports and academics, White graduated at the top of his high school class. He won a scholarship to the University of Colorado. There White became an All-American football player, and he eventually earned the nickname "Whizzer." After graduating from the university in 1938, White deferred on Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He decided to play professional football for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time, White received a record-breaking salary of $15,800 for the season.

World War II

In 1939, Byron R. White finally went to study at Oxford University. He returned home later that year as World War II began. Back in the States, White began his studies at Yale Law School. He took time away from his coursework to return to professional football. For two seasons, White was a member of the Detroit Lions.

White joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He won a Bronze Star for his service on the war's Pacific front. While working in naval intelligence, he met up John F. Kennedy. White wrote the official report on the sinking of Kennedy's military vessel. Also during the war, he became friends with future Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens.

Lawyer and Kennedy Campaigner

In 1946, White finished his law degree at Yale. He then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a year as a law clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson. White returned to Colorado to join a law firm in Denver where he focused much of his efforts on corporate law.

White largely avoided politics for much of his professional life until Senator John F. Kennedy ran for president. To support his old friend, White ran the Kennedy campaign efforts in Colorado and later the national organization Citizens for Kennedy. After Kennedy won his presidential bid, he appointed White deputy attorney general. White worked for U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in this job.

Supreme Court Justice

In 1962, President Kennedy nominated White for the United States Supreme Court. White replaced Charles Whittaker who had decided to retire. At the age of 44, he became the youngest man to serve on the court at the time. When he first started, the conservative, often brusque justice seemed a bit out of place on the more liberal court of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

White dissented on some of the leading decisions made by the court, often in opposition to what he believed to judicial activism. In 1966, he objected to the ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, which changed the way the police could interrogate suspects. White thought the court overstepped its bounds, creating its own version of the Fifth Amendment. In his dissenting opinion, he wrote "I have no desire whatsoever to share the responsibility" for the decision's "impact on the present criminal process."

In 1973, White also dissented in the abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. He believed that the court's ruling in the case was "an improvident and extravagant exercise ... of raw judicial power," according to the Los Angeles Times.

As the court became more conservative in the 1980s and '90s, White seemed to more in line with his colleagues. He wrote the majority opinion for Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which upheld the Georgia law against "homosexual sodomy." He and his fellow justices overturned a lower court's ruling that considered this sexual act to be covered under an implied right to privacy found in the Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. White thought the Constitution offered no such provisions, and the court had no interest in invalidating the sodomy laws in roughly 25 states.

Final Years

White retired from the court in 1993. Known for being gruff and no-nonsense, he skipped the standard final press conference before stepping down. Instead, White released a letter to his judicial peers and the public about his future plans. According to The New York Times, he wrote: "Hence, like any other Court of Appeals judge, I hope the court's mandates will be clear, crisp, and leave those of us below with as little room as possible for disagreement about their meaning."

On April 15, 2002, former justice White died of complications of pneumonia in Denver, Colorado. He was survived by his wife Marion, their two children, Byron White and Nancy White Lippe, and six grandchildren. White was hailed by President George W. Bush as "a distinguished jurist who served his country with honor and dedication," according to the Washington Post. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist also remembered White as "a good colleague and a great friend" to the Los Angeles Times.

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