Lewis F. Powell Jr. Biography

Supreme Court Justice, Judge (1907–1998)
Lewis Powell was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1972 to 1987.


Lewis F. Powell Jr. took his seat in the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1972. Powell took a moderate-to-liberal stance on such issues as legalized abortion and civil rights questions. Among his most well-known decisions was Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), in which Powell led the court in ruling that affirmative action was constitutional to achieve diversity.

Early Life

Born on September 19, 1907, in Suffolk, Virginia, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. is remembered for being a moderate conservative during his time on the nation's highest court. He enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as the son of a successful businessman.

Powell stayed in his native Virginia to attend college, enrolling at Washington and Lee University. In 1929, he earned a bachelor's degree from the university. He continued his studies there, completing his law degree two years later. Powell headed north to obtain master's degree in law from Harvard University in 1932.

Virginia Lawyer

After completing his legal studies, Powell went into private practice in Richmond, Virginia. He joined the firm of Hunton, Williams, Gay and Moore in 1935 and became one of its partners three years later. In 1936, Powell married his wife Josephine. The couple had three daughters and a son together.

During World War II, Powell served in the U.S. Army Air Force. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel. Powell worked with British intelligence officers on a project decrypting German codes. For his service, he received several honors, including the Bronze Star.

After his return to Richmond, Powell continued to work as an attorney. He was also very involved in his community, serving as the chair of the Richmond School Board for nearly a decade. In the early 1960s, Powell became nationally known as president of the American Bar Association. He also worked on a legal commission for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Supreme Court Justice

In 1969, President Richard Nixon approached Powell to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He turned Nixon down, but he finally accepted the offer when Nixon asked again two years later. At the time, the 64-year-old Powell thought he was too old for the position. But Nixon told reporters that "10 years of him is worth 30 years of most," according to the Boston Globe.

Powell officially took his post as an associate justice in 1972. For roughly 15 years, he proved to be the swing vote on many crucial cases. Powell proved to be a longtime champion for a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, supporting the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and defending it numerous times over the years. He also chartered middle ground on the famous affirmative action case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke in 1978. Writing the majority opinion, Powell stated that a person's race or ethnic background could be used as a factor in the university's admissions process, but the school could not set aside openings for any specific demographic.

Despite holding some more liberal positions, Powell still had many conservative beliefs. His vote helped keep anti-sodomy laws on the books in Georgia in the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick. The decision in this case was seen as a setback for gay rights. The following year, Powell found in favor of upholding the death penalty despite the apparent racial imbalance in those executed in McClesky v. Kemp in 1987. Years later, Powell came to consider his position on Bowers v. Hardwick as a mistake.

Final Years

In June 1987, Powell stepped down from the Supreme Court. He still heard cases for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia after leaving his post. And, for nearly a decade, Powell maintained his chambers at the Supreme Court. He died on August 25, 1998, at his home in Richmond, Virginia. He was 90 years old.

Upon learning of Powell's passing, his former Supreme Court colleague William Rehnquist remembered him as "the very embodiment of 'judicial temperament,'" according to the Washington Post. Rehnquist said that Powell was "receptive to the ideas of his colleagues, fair to the parties to the case, but ultimately relying on his own seasoned judgment." President Bill Clinton also sang Powell's praises, calling him "one of our most thoughtful and conscientious justices," according to the Boston Globe.

A courthouse in Powell's beloved Richmond now bears his name; it is just one of the many posthumous honors awarded to this famed jurist.

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