Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

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Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (September 19, 1907August 25, 1998) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was known as a master of compromise and consensus building.

He was born in Suffolk, Virginia. He attended Washington and Lee University, garnering both an undergraduate and a law degree from that university. He was elected president of student body as an undergraduate. At a leadership conference, he met Edward R. Murrow. They became close friends. He attended Harvard Law School for a master's degree.

During World War II, he spent more than three years in Europe and North Africa. He started as a First Lieutenant, but rose to the rank of Colonel. He worked mostly in intelligence, decoding German messages.

Powell was a partner for over a quarter of a century at Hunton, Williams, Gay, Powell and Gibson, a large Virginia law firm. He also played an important role in local community affairs. From 1952 to 1961, he was Chairman of the Richmond School Board. Powell presided over the school board at a time when the State of Virginia was locked in a campaign of defiance against the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, though the Richmond School Board had no authority at the time to force integration, control over attendance policies having been transferred to the state government. Powell, like most white Southern leaders of his day, did not speak out against the state's defiance, though he would foster a close relationship with many black leaders, some of whom offered key support for Powell's nomination, and Powell proudly swore in Virginia's first black governor, Douglas Wilder, in 1991.

Powell was President of the American Bar Association during the year 1964-1965, where he enjoyed an enormously productive tenure. Powell led the way in attempting to provide legal services to the poor, and he made a key decision to cooperate with the federal government's Legal Services Program.

Powell was involved in the development of Colonial Williamsburg, where he was both a trustee and general counsel. In 1971, he wrote the famous Powell Memorandum (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html) to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding politics and law in the U.S. and may have sparked the formation of one or more influential right-wing think tanks.

He and William Rehnquist were nominated by President Nixon on the same day to serve on the court. Powell took over the seat of Hugo Black. He served from January 7, 1972 to June 26, 1987.

Powell compiled a decidedly moderate record on the Court, cultivating a reputation as a swing vote with a penchant for compromise. For example, his opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) joined by no other justice, represented a compromise between the opinions of Justice William J. Brennan, who, joined by three other justices, would have upheld affirmative action programs under a lenient judicial test, and the opinion of John Paul Stevens, also joined by three justices, who would have struck down the affirmative action program at issue in the case under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Powell's opinion striking down the law urged that "strict scrutiny" be applied to affirmative action programs, while hinting that some affirmative action programs might pass Constitutional muster. Powell, who dissented in the case of Furman v. Georgia (1972), striking down capital punishment statutes, was a key mover behind the Court's compromise opinion in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), which allowed the return of capital punishment but only with procedural safeguards.

Powell was nearly 80 years old when he resigned his position as Supreme Court justice. He was succeeded by Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy was the third nominee for his position. The first, Robert Bork, was not confirmed by the Senate. The second, Douglas H. Ginsburg withdrew his name from consideration.

In 1936, he married Josephine Pierce Rucker. They had three daughters and one son. Powell's wife died in 1996. Justice Powell died at his home in Richmond, Virginia of pneumonia at the age of 90.


Preceded by:
Hugo Black
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
January 7, 1972June 26, 1987
Succeeded by:
Anthony Kennedy

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