When Old Friends Abandon Principle

Winston Churchill reportedly said, "We have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests." Principles prevail, and if a friend once advocated a principle and later abandoned it -- well, principle trumps personality. That quotation came to mind when I read the recent obituaries of former Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White, known as "Whizzer" for his great football prowess. After spending thirty-one years on the High Court, White retired in 1993 and died last month at the age of eighty-four. In light of Churchill's statement, I thought of the fact that White was appointed by President John F. Kennedy, who called White "the ideal New Frontier judge." New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse described the late justice's legacy as "a complex and somewhat ambiguous one . . . The difficulty in categorizing him came in part from the fact that Justice White was motivated not by ideology in the conventional sense . . . " He envisioned "a strong yet politically accountable federal government and, at the same time, a Supreme Court that deferred to judgments reached by Congress and the executive branch." Unlike one justice who defended his prerogative to override legislative and executive decisions by saying, "We're supreme" -- White modestly commented, "Judges have an exaggerated view of their role in our polity." White voted with the majority in decisions expanding civil rights and abolishing school segregation, but when the court became more activist, White cast his vote toward moderation. Most notably, White dissented from the infamous 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion that read into the Constitution a right to privacy and, therefore, to abortion. He also affirmed that neither pornography nor homosexuality were constitutional rights. Columnist Cal Thomas writes, "White chastised his colleagues who voted in favor of striking down state laws restricting abortion, saying they had indulged in 'an exercise of raw judicial power.'" Thirteen years later, in another abortion case, White warned his fellow justices against "the unrestrained imposition of its own, extraconstitutional value preferences" -- how right he was. I've written at length on judicial overreach. It's ironic that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have announced that they will deny Senate confirmation to jurists like Judge Pickering who shared White's views. While calling themselves ideological heirs of John Kennedy, they simultaneously refuse to consider any judicial nominee who isn't avowedly pro-abortion. On CNN's "Capital Gang," commentator Kate O'Beirne stated her "Outrage of the Week:" Kennedy appointee Byron White would not be approved by today's Senate Judiciary Committee, which makes abortion its inflexible litmus test. The late Justice White reminds us that members of is own distinguished party once accepted moral values much closer to biblical standards than do some of the politicians of our day. What we can hope and pray for is men and women who, regardless of party, will rise up as the great "Whizzer" White did in defense of what Churchill called the "lasting interests." For further reading: J. Budziszewski, Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Spence Publishing, 2000). Linda Greenhouse, "Byron R. White, Supreme Court Justice for 31 Years, Dies at 84," New York Times , April 15, 2002. Cal Thomas, "Byron White's life agency,", 17 April 2002. Transcript of CNN's "Capital Gang," 20 April 2002 (scroll to end for O'Beirne's remarks on Justice White).


Chuck Colson


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