The reluctant Supreme Court justice made a substantial mark on U.S. law.
Lewis F. Powell, who believed he was too old at 64 when he accepted President Nixon's nomination to the court in 1971, died Tuesday at the age of 90 at his home in Richmond, Va.Powell clearly was someone who served not for prestige but out of duty. He had deep misgivings about his appointment and expressed them. At the urging of Nixon he relented and took the post.
Nixon wrote Powell a "Dear Lewis" letter when the justice retired in 1987, recounting his comment during the nomination that "10 years of Lewis Powell on the court was worth 20 years of anyone else."
Similar and appropriate comments were offered by President Clinton on the news of Powell's death. Powell "approached each case without an ideological agenda, carefully applying the Constitution, the law, and Supreme Court precedent regardless of his own personal views," Clinton noted. "His opinions were a model of balance and judiciousness."
They indeed were. Powell had the reputation of being a conservative when he was appointed to the ideologically divided court. But it quickly became apparent that as former law clerk John C. Jeffries stated, "he developed a habit of listening and tried to make up his mind slowly."
His most important opinion, according to his own acknowledgment, was in the 1978 Baake case. By a 5-4 vote, the court upheld a decision that medical school applicant Alan Baake suffered unlawful discrimination because he was white.
"Preferring members of any one race group for no other reason than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake. This the Constitution forbids," Powell wrote. The decision upheld, however, the use of some race-conscious criteria in medical school admission practices.
Powell was a Southern gentlemen who served his nation with honor and distinction. On that point the voting is unanimous.