Justice White's Principled Passion for Consistency

Article excerpt

The death of Justice Byron White represents another step toward the end of an era that most of us in midlife as attorneys associate with the Presidency of John Kennedy and the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren. (1) President Kennedy's appointment of Justice White to the Court hardly ensured a liberal bent in its rulings; indeed, Justice White clearly proved to be a conservative (2) and moderating influence in a number of areas. (3) Nevertheless, he demonstrated a strain of judicial independence and dedication to principle that encourages us, as lawyers, to believe that all presidential appointments to the High Court have the potential for faithful service to a vision of the Constitution that is not imbedded in extreme political ideology or blindness to the virtues of reasoned argument. (4)

Justice White's most interesting contribution to the work of the Court may well have been reflected in his concern that the Justices exercise their jurisdiction to ensure a uniform application of the law. As attorneys, our ability to serve the interests of our clients requires that we be able to accurately assess the current state of the law and identify trends that may have implications for those clients' peculiar concerns. This is best done when the law is stable, or at the least, progressing on a stable course in an identifiable direction. Uncertainty in doctrine, while undoubtedly of interest to academics and theoreticians, is an anathema to the practitioner whose sound counsel is dependent upon the stability that doctrinal certainty affords.

In case after case presented to the Court for review, Justice White's passion for resolution of conflict is apparent not only in his opinion writing, (5) but in his dissents from the denial of the writ of certiorari. There, recognizing the existence of significant conflict in the approach taken to important constitutional questions by differing lower courts, (6) he argued that the Court should exercise its jurisdiction to resolve or harmonize these divergent approaches. In dissenting from the denial of certiorari in Bailey v. Weinberger, (7) he argued:

   It is a prime function of this Court's certiorari jurisdiction to resolve
   precisely the kind of conflict here presented. Perhaps the state of our
   docket will not permit us to resolve all disagreements between courts of
   appeals, or between federal and state courts, and perhaps we must tolerate
   the fact that in some instances enforcement of federal law in one area of
   the country differs from enforcement in another. Hopefully, these
   situations will be few and far between. (8)

The value of these published dissents lies both in Justice White's unwavering commitment to resolution of conflict in constitutional doctrine, (9) but perhaps more significantly for the practitioner, in his identification of doctrinal variation warranting further development and litigation in the Court. (10)

For example, in Spierings v. Alaska, (11) the petitioner brought a still-unresolved issue of double jeopardy to the Court, questioning whether the Alaska courts had properly held that a jury deliberating on the greater offense could be precluded from considering the lesser-included offense unless it had unanimously agreed to acquit on the greater charge. (12) The defense had requested an instruction permitting the jury to reach the issue of the lesser-included offense in the event jurors were deadlocked on the greater charge. The trial court rejected the proposed instruction and was upheld by the Alaska Court of Appeals (13) and a majority of the Alaska Supreme Court. (14) But a dissent in the state supreme court (15) argued for the alternative instruction proposed by the defense, (16) raising the specter of conflicting approaches taken by other jurisdictions, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. (17)

Justice White perceived the significance of the conflicting approaches taken in the lower courts and dissented from the Court's denial of certiorari. …