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Portrait of Lewis Franklin Powell Jr.
Portrait of Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

b. September 19, 1907, Suffolk, VA
d. August 25, 1998, Richmond, VA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. attended Washington and Lee University, earning his undergraduate degree in 1929 and his law degree in 1931. He went on to Harvard, where he earned a master's degree in law in 1932. That same year, he entered private practice with a law firm in Virginia where he worked until 1971, except for a period in the air force during World War II. After the war, he resumed private practice and occupied a number of civic posts, including chairman of the Richmond School Board from 1952 to 1961. In that capacity he implemented the relatively quiet, though partial, desegregation of the Richmond school system at a time when the state of Virginia was embroiled in controversy, attempting to resist integration mandated by the Supreme Court.

Powell served as president of the American Bar Association from 1964 to 1965, where he advocated legal services for the poor and began a cooperative relationship with the federal Legal Services Program. He served on the boards of Philip Morris in 1964, and together with his firm, he represented the Tobacco Institute in numerous legal cases. In August 1971 Powell sent a "Confidential Memorandum" (the "Powell Memorandum") to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell entitled it "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System" and went on to describe what he saw as the danger posed by government regulation of industry and hostile public attitudes toward American business on college campuses, in churches, in the media, in the arts and sciences, and in government. He called for a new assertiveness by corporations, for "surveillance" of textbooks and television, and for a purge of left-wing elements. The memorandum helped inspire the creation of several conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and the Cato Institute. Their focus on building a conservative movement helped lay the groundwork for the ascendancy of neoconservatives in the 1980s and beyond.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court, in part because of Powell's conservative views on crime and law enforcement. Respected by other lawyers, Powell was a pragmatist and a centrist. Conservative on some issues, he was a strong advocate of integration and civil rights. As new, more conservative justices joined the Court, especially those appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Powell came to occupy a position philosophically in the middle of the Court. He was known for his willingness to compromise, and his vote was often decisive in resolving 4 to 4 deadlocks.

Among his more famous opinions was that of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Powell's vote in that case to overturn California's affirmative action policy was the decisive one, though his opinion, joined by no other justice, implied that affirmative action was not necessarily unconstitutional. Powell dissented in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, in which the Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional; four years later, in 1976, he was in the majority when the Court reinstated its constitutionality in Gregg v. Georgia. Powell retired in 1987 at the age of 80.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

William O. Douglas Earl Warren John Marshall Harlan II William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Warren Burger view all biographies Hugo Black Felix Frankfurter Harry Blackmun Lewis F. Powell, Jr. William Rehnquist Sandra Day O'Connor