Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Education Justice: The Honorable Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Education Justice: The Honorable Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr

Article excerpt


The Honorable Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. is "the education Justice" of the United States. During his tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court, from 1971 to 1987, Justice Powell authored at least twenty major opinions in education law, in addition to numerous significant concurrences and dissents. Just a sampling of Justice Powell's majority opinions on education could form the bulk of an education law textbook recognizable by any American law student. Among Justice Powell's most memorable education opinions are Healy v. James, (1) San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, (2) Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, (3) Ingraham v. Wright, (4) Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, (5) Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, (6) Ambach v. Norwick, (7) Southeastern Community College v. Davis, (8) National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, (9) Widmar v. Vincent, (10) Martinez v. Bynum, (11) and Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education. (12) A complete listing of Justice Powell's opinions relating to education appears in the appendix at the end of this Article.

Even more illustrative of Justice Powell's appellation as "the education Justice" are his deep connections, both public and private, to elementary, secondary, and higher education. These connections inevitably influenced Justice Powell's views on education, much as Justice Harry A. Blackmun's role as general counsel for the Mayo Clinic permeated his majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. (13)

This Article will explore some of Justice Powell's major Supreme Court rulings in education law. It will also consider how these rulings may have related to aspects of Justice Powell's life. In addition, the Article will briefly describe the Supreme Court's current views on education and will attempt to describe how Justice Powell might analyze these issues today. At least one sitting Justice on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, appears to have been influenced by Justice Powell's views. (14) Justice O'Connor occupies a similar ideological position on the Supreme Court as did Justice Powell, who wrote more than 250 majority opinions and whose "knack for being on the winning side never dropped below eighty per cent in any term, and often exceeded ninety per cent." (15)

In the first part of the Article, a brief biography of Justice Powell will be presented, emphasizing his connection to education. The second part of the Article will discuss Justice Powell's views in three extremely important cases: San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, (16) Ingraham v. Wright, (17) and Committee of Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist. (18) Woven into the case discussions will be aspects of Justice Powell's biography, as well as the present Supreme Court's thoughts on these issues. The last section of the Article will focus on the Bakke (19) opinion, asking if the Supreme Court can sustain Justice Powell's reasoning in Bakke today.


Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr., was born on September 19, 1907, in Suffolk, Virginia. His father was a hardworking and prosperous businessman who never let his offspring take their comfort for granted. Powell's father required him to work during the summer at various blue-collar occupations. (21) Although a bit roughhewn, Justice Powell's father traced his roots to the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, a fact which invoked references to Justice Powell as a patrician Southern gentleman. (22)

Justice Powell considered his upbringing to have been very traditional. He stated, "I was raised in a very devout Christian family. We would have prayers every morning after breakfast, and every evening we'd kneel to pray and read a few verses from the Bible." (23) Justice Powell as a youth attended McGuire's University School, a private preparatory school. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.