Byron Raymond White’s path to Supreme Court Justice is that of a storybook tale. Born and raised in the farming community of Wellington in north-central Colorado, Byron White’s trajectory began as valedictorian of his high school class of six students. He attended the University of Colorado where he was president of the student body, and valedictorian of his university class; along the way, he earned ten varsity letters in football, basketball, and baseball. On the gridiron, Byron ‘‘Whizzer’’ White was also selected as a member of the 1937 All-American football team as a running back and punter and named runner-up for the collegiate football’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy after leading his team to the Cotton Bowl.
After completing his undergraduate studies, Byron White was selected as a Rhodes Scholar in 1939 to attend Oxford, and later received his law degree from Yale, graduating at the top of his class; he also played three seasons of professional football being named Rookie of the Year and leading the league in rushing twice.
White’s law studies were interrupted by World War II, in which he served as a naval intelligence officer, which included investigating the sinking of PT Boat 109, the boat captained by future president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. White also survived two kamikaze attacks on ship Bunker Hill and then the attack on the Enterprise.
After graduating magna cum laude from Yale Law School, Byron White clerked for Chief Justice Fred Vinson of the U.S. Supreme Court before returning to Denver to practice law for fourteen years. White was to become the first Supreme Court clerk to subsequently become a Supreme Court Justice himself.
While in private practice, he was chosen by Robert Kennedy to head the National Citizens for Kennedy Committee in the presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. Soon thereafter, he was asked to go to Washington, D.C., as a deputy attorney general of the United States. While in that position, he became involved in leading the federal marshals in the protection of the civil rights of the Alabama Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama.
In 1961, President John Kennedy nominated Byron White, who was forty-four at the time, to the U.S. Supreme Court to succeed Justice Charles Evans Whittaker who left the Court due to illness. Justice White served in that capacity for thirty-one years from 1961 to 1993 as part of a Court that addressed some of the most momentous issues of the twentieth century that set the social and political agenda for the nation, ranging from cases on segregation within schools, school prayer, Fifth Amendment implications and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Watergate tapes, the Pentagon papers, abortion, consensual homosexual relations, and the constitutionality of the death penalty. White’s judicial philosophy cannot be placed solely in any one category in that how he viewed an issue would often be as unpredictable and as varied as were the issues that came before the Court during this tumultuous period in American history.
As a critic of Roe v. Wade (1973) with a strongly worded dissent, White appeared to be critical of the substantive due process analysis, but then clearly recognized the right of privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) by striking down laws against contraception. White also authored the opinion in the now-defunct Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) upholding Georgia’s antisodomy laws stating that ‘‘proscriptions against [sodomy] have ancient roots’’ and ‘‘sodomy was a criminal offense at common law and was forbidden by the laws of the original 13 states when they ratified the Bill of Rights.’’
Justice White’s view on the death penalty varied over time; he joined five other justices in Furman v. Georgia (1972) striking down many state death penalty statutes, but later upheld a capital punishment sentence of death in Gregg v. Georgia (1976). Justice White also struck down a death sentence in Coker v. Georgia (1977), which had imposed a death sentence for a conviction of rape requiring that all punishments be proportional to the crime as prescribed by the Eighth Amendment.
While Justice White’s jurisprudence spread across the jurisprudential spectrum from conservative to liberal, he also wrote one of the more poignant rulings in United States v. Wade (1967) describing a criminal defense lawyer’s duties: while law enforcement has ‘‘the obligation to convict the guilty and to make sure they do not convict the innocent,’’ criminal defense counsel has no ‘‘comparable obligation to ascertain or present the truth.’’
Our system assigns [defense counsel] a different mission. He must be and is interested in preventing the conviction of the innocent, but, absent a voluntary plea of guilty, we also insist that he defend his client whether he is innocent or guilty.... If he can confuse a witness, even a truthful one, or make him appear at a disadvantage, unsure or indecisive, that will be his normal course.... In this respect, as part of our modified adversary system and as part of the duty imposed on the most honorable defense counsel, we countenance the required conduct which in many instances has little, if any, relation to the search for truth.
Upon his retirement in 1993 from the bench, President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to succeed White.
ROBERT DON GIFFORD
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited