WASHINGTON – Retired Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, appointed by Democratic President Kennedy but remembered as a law-and-order conservative who opposed much of the court's liberal 1960s agenda, died Monday at 84.
A football star as a young man, White served 31 years on the court before retiring in 1993. In the court's history, only eight justices served longer.
White died Monday morning in Denver, of complications from pneumonia, the court announced. He was the last living former justice.
"He led a storybook life," said John Goldberg, a Vanderbilt law professor who clerked for White from 1992-93, his final year on the court. "I don't think there's a comparable biography anywhere else in modern American history for someone who's done so many important things so well."
White's story does evoke a movie script, a narrative of a uniquely American 20th-century life.
He grew up in a tiny Colorado town, graduated first in his class and was an All-American football player at the University of Colorado, then went to England as a Rhodes scholar. He received high honors at Yale law school, served in World War II and was known to a generation of sports fans as "Whizzer" White, once the best-paid player in the National Football League. White bristled at the nickname.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recalled White as a fine colleague and friend.
"He came as close as anyone I have known to meriting Matthew Arnold's description of Sophocles: `He saw life steadily and saw it whole,"' Rehnquist said Monday.
Justice Antonin Scalia described White's bone-crushing handshake as a metaphor for a forceful personality.
"If there is one adjective that never could, never would, be applied to Byron White, it is wishy-washy," Scalia said. "You always knew where he stood, that he was not likely to be moved, and hoped that he was lining up on your side of scrimmage."
President Bush recalled White as "a distinguished jurist who served his country with honor and dedication."
In making Byron Raymond White his first Supreme Court pick in 1962, Kennedy said White had "excelled in everything he had attempted."
White soon marked his independence from Kennedy's brand of liberalism, supporting civil rights laws but dissenting as the court moved to expand other rights and protections that White sometimes found troubling.
He voted to give federal courts broad powers to order racial desegregation of the nation's public schools, but he later opposed broad use of affirmative action to remedy past discrimination in employment.
White dissented from the court's 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling that requires police to recite constitutional rights to those they arrest and again in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Although his own views changed little, change around him on the court made White a consistent, if independent, member of an increasingly conservative majority. A hard-liner on law-and-order, White often spoke for the court in decisions enhancing police authority.
White wrote for the court when, in 1984, it carved out for the first time a "good faith" exception to the long-standing rule that excluded from criminal trials any evidence unlawfully seized by police. White said objects seized through police officers' use of a defective search warrant could be used as trial evidence.
He generally opposed expansive freedom-of-expression rights and favored greater governmental accommodation of religion in ways more liberal justices considered violations of the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
White also wrote for the court when it struck down capital punishment for rapists, declared nude dancing a constitutionally protected form of expression, exempted child pornography from free-speech protections and stripped presidential Cabinet members of the absolute immunity from civil lawsuits they once enjoyed.
"Although the received wisdom is never going to be that Justice White was one of the giants of the federal judiciary, in fact he was a model judge in many ways," said Cardozo School of Law professor and former White law clerk Michael Herz. "He understood the consequences of what the court did, and he did not reach further than he should have."
On the bench, the gravelly voiced White was a tough interrogator who could leave lawyers stammering.
Off the bench, he had a brusque manner that many found off-putting. Former law clerks and others who knew him, however, recall a warmer presence in private and a talent for whimsy that included riding a unicycle indoors.
"He didn't go out to charm people. He just acted natural, and most everybody loved that," said Bob Harry, 83, a retired lawyer in Denver and a longtime White friend.
White was 44, Kennedy's age, when the young president put him on the court. The two had met in 1939, and their paths crossed again during World War II when White, a naval intelligence officer, wrote the official report of the sinking of Kennedy's PT-109.
Active in Kennedy's later presidential campaign, Attorney General Robert Kennedy named White his deputy in charge of day-to-day operations at the Justice Department. His court nomination came a year later.
White told a Colorado audience in 2000 that he told Kennedy he didn't much want to be a judge.
"I said to the president I would give it a try," White said.
He had been ill much of the last two years and looked frail during his rare appearances at the Supreme Court. White had kept a court office since his retirement, but closed it last year and moved back to Colorado, a signal to many that his health was perilous.