The Right-Wing Legacy of Justice Lewis Powell, and What It Means for the Supreme Court Today

By Bill Blum
Bill Blum
Bill Blum is a former judge and death penalty defense attorney. He is the author of three legal thrillers published by Penguin/Putnam ("Prejudicial Error," "The Last Appeal" and "The Face of Justice") and is a…
Bill Blum

President Richard Nixon presents a framed document to Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. during a White House ceremony in 1971. (Henry Burroughs / AP)

Chances are if you were asked to name the most influential conservative Supreme Court justice of the last 60 years, you’d nominate the late Antonin Scalia. And you’d have any number of compelling reasons to do so.

Whether you liked him or loathed him, Scalia was a jurisprudential giant, pioneer of the “originalist” theory of constitutional interpretation, consistent backer of business interests, and the author of the 2008 landmark majority decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. His death in February left a vacancy that has become a hot-button issue in the runup to the November election.

But for all of Scalia’s impact—and notwithstanding the political shivers and convulsions his demise has sparked—I have another contender, or at least a close runner-up, in mind: the late Lewis F. Powell Jr.

“Lewis F. Powell Jr.?” you might ask, with just a trace of skepticism. “Wasn’t he the one-time corporate lawyer whom New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse eulogized in her 1998 obituary as a ‘voice of moderation and civility’ during his 15-year tenure on the court?”

Yes, that guy. But while Powell has been widely commemorated by Greenhouse and others as both a centrist, a lifelong Democrat and a judicial workhorse, writing more than 500 opinions, his most significant contribution to American legal history was made in secret, some five months before his January 1972 elevation to the bench, and it was anything but moderate.

On Aug. 23, 1971, Powell penned a confidential 6,400-word memorandum and sent it off to his friend and Richmond, Va., neighbor, Eugene Sydnor Jr., then-chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce education committee and head of the now-defunct Southern Department Stores chain.

The memo, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was breathtaking in its scope and ambition, and far more right-wing than anything Scalia ever wrote. It was, as writer Steven Higgs noted in a 2012 article published by CounterPunch, “A Call to Arms for Class War: From the Top Down.”

Back in 1971, when the memo was prepared, Powell was a well-connected partner in the Richmond-based law firm of Hutton, Williams, Gay, Powell and Gibson and sat on the boards of 11 major corporations, including the tobacco giant Philip Morris. He also had served as chairman of the Richmond School Board from 1952 to ’61 and as president of the American Bar Association from 1964 to ’65. In 1969, he declined a nomination to the Supreme Court offered by President Nixon, preferring to remain in legal practice, through which he reportedly had amassed a personal fortune.

Powell and other business leaders of the era were convinced that American capitalism was in the throes of an existential crisis. A liberal Congress had forced Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupation and Health Administration. At the same time, consumers were making headway against corporate abuse, both in the courts and legislatively. And the anti-war and the black and brown civil rights movements were all gathering steam and scaring the bejesus out of the corporate oligarchy.

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” Powell began his analysis. “There always have been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism).”

“But now what concerns us,” he continued, “is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.”

In particular, Powell identified college campuses as hotbeds of dangerous zealotry, fueled by charismatic Marxist professors such as Herbert Marcuse of the University of California, San Diego, along with inspiring New Left lawyers like William Kunstler and Ralph Nader. Together, these “spokesmen” (the male noun being used throughout) were succeeding not only in “radicalizing thousands of the young,” but in Powell’s view also winning over “respectable liberals and social reformers. It is the sum total of their views and influence which could indeed fatally weaken or destroy the system.”

Sounding like an inverted caricature of Vladimir Lenin, who in his seminal pamphlet “What is to be Done?” pondered how the Russian Bolsheviks might seize power, Powell asked directly in the memo, “What specifically should be done?” to awaken the business community from its torpor, spur it to counter the New Left and reassert its political and legal hegemony.

The first step, he reasoned, was “for businessmen to confront this problem [the threat to the system] as a primary responsibility of corporate management.” In addition, resources and unity would be required.

“Strength,” Powell wrote, “lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

Deepening his call to action, Powell urged the Chamber of Commerce and other business entities to redouble their lobbying efforts and to “recruit” lawyers of “the greatest skill” to represent business interests before the Supreme Court, which under the stewardship of Chief Justice Earl Warren had moved steadily leftward. Powell wrote: “Under our constitutional system … the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”

Apparently stirred by the urgency of the hour, Powell accepted Nixon’s second invitation to join the Supreme Court, tendered in October 1971. He was confirmed by the full Senate two months later by a vote of 89-1, with the sole “nay” ballot cast by Democrat Fred Harris of Oklahoma, a maverick populist, who asserted that Powell was an “elitist” who lacked compassion for “little people.” Powell took his seat the next January.

Powell’s memo, although circulated and discussed within the Chamber and in wider business consortia, never came to light during his confirmation hearings, despite supposedly thorough vetting by the FBI. In fact, it came to public notice only in September 1972, when it was leaked to syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, who devoted two pieces that month to the memo, describing it as “a blueprint for an assault by big business on its critics.” Powell’s views, Anderson argued, “were so militant that [the memo] raises a question about his fitness to decide any case involving business interests.”

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