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Supreme Court’s Byron White Dies; Differed with Jews on Church-state

April 17, 2002
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Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who died Monday at 84, was close to the Jewish community on social issues but angered some with his positions on abortion and separation of church and state.

White, who served 31 years on the bench, died from complications from pneumonia.

Lacking the star power of a William Brennan or Potter Stewart, White was known for speaking his mind, but many times what he said did not please Jewish groups.

White was one of two justices to dissent from the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that declared that women have a constitutional right to an abortion. He repeatedly urged that the decision be overturned.

White was considered a “swing” justice, generally voting with liberals on civil rights cases, but with conservatives on personal liberty and criminal justice issues.

“On some of the social issues he was fairly close to consensus views of the Jewish community, but clearly on abortion and church-state he was out of step with those consensus views,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a law professor.

White dissented from rulings outlawing voluntary prayer for children in public schools. He said the court should reconsider its rulings that erected a wall of separation between church and state.

White dissented from the court’s 1992 ruling striking down clergy-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies. He wrote the opinion for a 1993 case that said a school district violated the First Amendment when it denied religious groups access after school hours to public school premises.

President John Kennedy appointed White to the Supreme Court in 1962. White’s retirement allowed President Bill Clinton in 1993 to name Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the court, marking the first Democratic appointment in 26 years.

White had an unusual mix of smarts and strength. After graduating college he won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, but he deferred it for a semester to play in the National Football League, where he led the league in rushing several times.

He stopped his studies to return to the United States and enter Yale University law school, but continued his professional football career. His 1938 salary of $15,800 was, at the time, the highest in the sport’s history.

One of White’s last public appearances came during the 2000 Bush v. Gore case, when he observed oral arguments.

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