During his fifteen years on the Supreme Court, Powell dominated an ideologically balanced court with his pragmatic, centrist views and his kind and courtly personal manner.
Although Powell’s father was eventually successful in business, Powell’s parents were not established socially or economically at the time of his birth. Powell received a bachelor’s and a law degree from Washington and Lee University and a master’s degree in law from Harvard University. Powell had a long and successful career in private law practice in Richmond, Virginia, worked in the U.S. Army breaking the German codes in World War II, and presided over the American Bar Association and other national professional groups. Powell also led the Richmond School Board in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and served on the state board of education through much of the next decade.
In 1972, at the age of sixty-four, Powell took his seat as an associate justice. If Powell, a Southern gentleman, sustained his aristocratic loyalties without embarrassment, he also appreciated the striking diversity of American traditions and backgrounds. Powell was also noteworthy for a background increasingly rare among Supreme Court justices: a career without prior judicial experience.
Lewis F. Powell, Jr.
In the next fifteen years until his resignation in 1987, Powell’s voice and vote were so critical to constitutional jurisprudence that many might designate this period as the Powell Court rather than by the traditional reference to the presiding chief justice. As the Court and the country swung from the liberalism of Earl Warren’s court to the conservatism of the Court under Warren Burger and William H. Rehnquist, Powell often provided the decisive fifth vote. Yet Powell’s prominence is as much a matter of his intellectual as his numerical position in close cases. Powell was a “balancer” in both senses. He broke down complex cases into the facts, arguments, and interests arrayed on either side, seeking an equilibrium among them.
Powell’s most famous opinion was undoubtedly Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
Moreover, Powell consistently favored proportionality in other criminal process and punishment cases with a strong equality dimension, including Batson v. Kentucky
Powell’s majority opinion in Gertz v. Robert Welch
Powell’s majority opinion in Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist
Following Powell’s retirement, President Ronald Reagan nominated the controversial Robert H. Bork. Although Powell was confirmed with only one negative vote, Bork’s nomination was defeated at least in part because of the contrast between him and Powell both in temperament and in ideological sharpness. Though Anthony M. Kennedy ultimately took Powell’s seat, Powell’s centrist role was assumed by Sandra Day O’Connor. In the years since, she has frequently controlled a court balanced between liberal and conservative wings. In that role, O’Connor has continued Powell’s pragmatism and collegiality.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Freeman, George Clemon, Jr. “Justice Powell’s Constitutional Opinions.” Washington and Lee Law Review 45 (1988): 411-465. Jeffries, John Calvin. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. New York: Fordham University Press, 2001. Kahn, Paul W. “The Court, the Community and the Judicial Balance: The Jurisprudence of Justice Powell.” Yale Law Journal 97 (1987): 1-60. Powell, Lewis F., Jr. “Reflections.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 96 (1988): 315-332. “A Tribute to Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.” Harvard Law Review 101 (1987): 395-420. Urofsky, Melvin I. “Mr. Justice Powell and Education: The Balancing of Competing Values.” Journal of Law and Education 13 (1984): 581-627. Yarbrough, Tinsley E. The Burger Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2000.
Batson v. Kentucky
Gertz v. Robert Welch
McCleskey v. Kemp
Race and discrimination
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez
School integration and busing