White, Byron R. (1917–)

Author:Jonathan D. Varat

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In 1962 President JOHN F. KENNEDY appointed Byron R. White to replace CHARLES E. WHITTAKER and become the ninety-third Justice to serve on the Supreme Court. White was forty-four years old and had no previous judicial experience. He had been a CLERK for Chief Justice FRED N. VINSON in 1946?1947, however, and was the first former law clerk subsequently appointed to that tribunal. His only other significant government experience had come during the preceding year, after President Kennedy had appointed him deputy attorney general. White had managed the Justice Department, recruited lawyers, and evaluated candidates for federal judgeships. His CIVIL RIGHTS enforcement experience included a stint in Montgomery, Alabama, where local authorities had failed to prevent mob violence against the freedom riders, an interracial group protesting racial SEGREGATION in public transportation. White restored order with the help of 400 federal

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marshals, providing Kennedy with a significant national victory over recalcitrant state officials.

Whatever White lacked in government experience, he made up in personal capacities. Born in rural Colorado, White came of age there during the Depression. He worked in the beet fields as a boy and later won a scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he was first in his class and an all American football player. He played professional football, and for several months, until the European outbreak of World War II, he studied as a Rhodes scholar in England, where he first met John Kennedy. He began studying law at Yale in 1939 and again topped his class. The war interrupted his studies, and he served as a naval intelligence officer in the South Pacific, where he again encountered Kennedy. He was graduated in 1946, and after his clerkship, returned to Colorado to practice law. In 1959 he organized support for Kennedy as the Democratic nominee for President. Following Kennedy's nomination, he chaired Citizens for Kennedy, a nationwide volunteer group. His public service followed.

When White joined the WARREN COURT, its most vigorous efforts to nationalize CIVIL LIBERTIES and limit government power in favor of individual rights and egalitarian values lay just ahead. White voted regularly with the majority to invalidate discrimination against racial minorities and the politically powerless in areas such as school DESEGREGATION and REAPPORTIONMENT, and to sustain the constitutionality of federal civil rights legislation. Nonetheless, he acquired a reputation as a moderate-to-conservative Justice for his frequent dissents in major decisions, such as MIRANDA V. ARIZONA (1966), which imposed new constitutional limits on police discretion; for his willingness to uphold laws excluding communists from government positions; and for his general inclination toward judicial self-restraint.

With President RICHARD M. NIXON'S four Court appointments from 1969?1971, the deferential positions White previously had articulated in dissent increasingly became majority views in the BURGER COURT. But White also dissented from decisions undermining egalitarian opinions he had joined in the Warren era. The Court had changed around him?not an uncommon occurrence for Justices serving for long periods.

The Court's shift, together with White's failure to articulate a comprehensive personal vision of an ideal balance of individual liberty and government power, has led some observers to conclude that White lacks a coherent judicial philosophy. The votes and written opinions of this independent, tough-minded jurist, however, do reveal a distinctive vision of the Supreme Court's role in constitutional law, a vision compatible with White's personal history.

One pervasive attitude in White's approach is skepticism and humility about the authority and capacity of the Court to second-guess the efforts of other government officials in dealing...

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