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Supreme Court Justices

Lewis Powell (1907-1998)

Lewis F. Powell, Jr., was born on November 19, 1907, in Virginia, the son of Lewis F. and Mary (Gwathmey) Powell. He was the oldest of four children. Powell obtained his bachelor's (1929) and law (1931) degrees from Washington and Lee University. He then obtained an advanced law degree, an LL.M., from Harvard University in 1932.

Powell moved to Richmond, Virginia, and after practicing with one law firm for a couple of years, he joined a firm that would become Hunton and Williams, today one of the larger law firms in the United States. During World War II, Powell, like Byron White, served in the military. Powell was an intelligence officer for the Army's nascent air force for three years.

During the 1950s, when several Virginia politicians proclaimed "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954 and 1955), Powell emerged as conservative who opposed such actions. In 1959, the Richmond public schools were integrated, albeit just barely, during the time Powell was chair of the school board in the city.

Powell was apparently asked several times by President Richard Nixon to serve on the Court. He finally agreed to do so, and in 1971 Powell left the private practice of law after he was nominated to take the seat of Hugo Black.

Powell was a centrist whose vote was often crucial on a regularly divided Court. For example, in Bakke v. University of California (1978), four members of the Court determined that California's quota system of affirmative action violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and four members of the Court concluded that the California program violated neither Title VI nor the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Justice Powell attempted to split the affirmative action baby, holding that the specific program (there existed 100 slots in the medical school at UC Davis, 16 of which were reserved to particular racial minorities) was unconstitutional, but also declaring that race may be used as a factor (not as sole criterion) in the school's admissions process. Powell joined the majority in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which held that the right of privacy did not included homosexual acts, but wrote a concurrence declaring that a severe punishment for engaging in homosexual sexual relations would likely violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the 8th amendment.

Powell retired from the Court in 1987. He continued to serve as a visiting judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit until 1997. died on August 25, 1998.

Powell married Josephine Rucker in 1936. They were the parents of four children.

Further reading: John C. Jefferies, Jr., Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (1994).