Tuesday, April 16, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kennedy appointee Byron White signaled high court's turn to the right

The Associated Press

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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 yesterday at 84.

A football star as a young man, Justice White served 31 years on the court before retiring in 1993. In the court's history, only eight justices served longer.

Justice White died yesterday in Denver, of pneumonia, the court announced. He was the last living former justice.

Justice White's story evokes 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. Justice White bristled at the nickname.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist recalled Justice 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 yesterday.

Justice Antonin Scalia described Justice 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 Justice 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 Justice White had "excelled in everything he had attempted."

Justice 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 Justice 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 dissented from the court's 1966 Miranda vs. Arizona ruling that requires police to recite constitutional rights to those they arrest and again in the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Although his own views changed little, change around him on the court made Justice White a consistent, if independent, member of an increasingly conservative majority. A law-and-order hard-liner, Justice White often spoke for the court in decisions enhancing police authority.

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.

He 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.

On the bench, the gravelly voiced Justice 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 friend.


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