Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr

Excerpt

Lewis Powell died on August 25, 1998, a month shy of his ninety-first birthday. At the funeral, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was Powell’s successor as the ideological center of a divided Supreme Court, gave a eulogy. She spoke of the human being, not the Justice, and closed by saying, “For those who seek a model of human kindness, decency, exemplary behavior and integrity, there will never be a better man.”

Many who accept that judgment may nevertheless wonder why they should read about a Justice who stepped down from the Court more than a decade ago. The answer, of course, is that Powell’s service on the Supreme Court from 1972 through 1987 placed him at the nerve center of American constitutional law for more than fifteen years. His position at the political pivot of a Court otherwise nicely balanced between liberals and conservatives gave his views unusual weight. On issue after issue, Powell’s voice proved decisive. To a remarkable degree, therefore, Powell’s life provides an inside look at the constitutional issues of his time.

To a remarkable degree also, the issues that dominated the headlines in the 1970s and 1980s still do so today. In attempting to recount Powell’s years on the Court, I made no effort at encyclopedic coverage. That approach would almost certainly have guaranteed the leaden density of treatises on legal doctrine. Instead, I decided to explore in detail the legal, political, and personal dimensions of Supreme Court decisions in six important areas. They were: school desegregation, abortion, Watergate, the death penalty, affirmative action, and gay rights. Today, only two of those areas have faded from prominence. Court-ordered school desegregation is increasingly a thing of the past, and the issues in the Nixon tapes case arose from the extraordinary—and, one hopes, not to be repeated—events of Watergate. The other areas—abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, and gay rights—remain as contentious and as high-profile as they were when Powell retired. The account of his participation on those issues is, therefore, constitutional history of distinctly contemporary meaning.

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