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Retired high court justice Byron White dies from pneumonia

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

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.

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."

Grew up in Colorado

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."

Independent judge

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 Kenn-edy'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.

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.


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