Segments in this Video

Sponsors and Introduction: Justice Lewis F. Powell (01:45)


Bill Moyers will interview Supreme Court justice Lewis F. Powell for this episode of "In Search of the Constitution." The U.S. Constitution has been revered and debated, honored and criticized throughout its 200 year history.

Lewis F. Powell, Southern Gentleman (03:04)

Lewis F. Powell, Jr. has not always fit the stereotype of the southern conservative in his legal opinions. Host Bill Moyers presents a brief history of Powell's formative years, his education, legal career and early involvement in civic life in Virginia.

Contrasting Constitutions (02:12)

Justice Lewis Powell compares the Constitution of the USSR to the U.S. Constitution. It is far longer, with 174 articles, whereas ours has only 7 plus the Amendments. The Soviet human rights sections sound very similar to our Bill of Rights.

The Importance of an Independent Judiciary (02:56)

In the USSR, the courts lack the authority to enforce the rights outlined in their Constitution. Lewis Powell believes the source of the Court's power in the U.S. is ultimately the people. The system of checks and balances works well.

The Purpose of Judicial Dissent (01:54)

Lewis Powell believes 5-4 Supreme Court decisions are misunderstood. Dissents are a powerful check on the majority, causing decisions to be more carefully considered. Dissenting opinions often become majority opinion later.

The Court as a Conservative Force (02:35)

Lewis Powell explains that the Court is reluctant to hold an Act of Congress invalid--their actions are presumptively Constitutional. The Court is also reluctant to overturn precedent. The doctrine of stare decisis ensures stability and continuity of law.

The Court as Nine Separate Law Firms (02:48)

Lewis Powell approaches each case on case by case basis. Cases are discussed fully in conference. The justices are influenced by each other's views but in the end they make separate and independent judgments.

A Sobering Decision (02:28)

One of the most difficult cases for Lewis Powell was the Nixon tapes case because it threatened the impeachment of the president. Moyers presents the history of Watergate. The Court ruled that Nixon must turn the tapes over to the special prosecutor.

A Nineteenth Century Precedent (02:12)

Lewis Powell explains why the Court ruled against Nixon's claim of executive privilege. Citing precedent going back to a case involving Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, the Court decided the president was not above the law.

The Rule of Law, Not of Men (01:54)

Lewis Powell notes that there could have been a Constitutional crisis if Nixon had refused to comply with the Supreme Court's order, and he commends Nixon for doing so. After 200 years we still have the rule of law, and judges are respected.

Lifetime Tenure of Judges (02:14)

Lewis Powell believes an age limit on judges might be a good idea. At 79, he is concerned about becoming out of touch. Life has changed significantly even since law school. He applauds the increasing entry of women into the field of law.

No More Mister Justice (02:24)

Even before the arrival of Sandra O'Connor, the Court had made changes in anticipation of women joining the Court. Lewis Powell says he never really wanted to be a judge, preferring the freedom of a lawyer in private practice.

Accepting the Nomination to the Court (03:25)

President Nixon had promised to put a conservative Southerner on the court. His first two picks were not confirmed. When Lewis Powell was asked, he initially declined. But after Nixon called him and appealed to his sense of duty, he consented.

Questions About Viewpoint (01:38)

President Nixon did not tell Lewis Powell he needed a strict constructionist on the Court. Powell has tried not to let his background influence his role as a judge. He strives to vote the way the law requires, not in accord with personal preferences.

What is a Conservative? (02:07)

Lewis Powell considers himself conservative in that he believes strongly in the free enterprise system. He regrets the extent of regulation of business, much of which occurred since he was in law school. He was raised in a different world.

Spanking Students Ruled Constitutional (02:19)

Lewis Powell says he doesn't have a judging philosophy. Bill Moyers gives a history of corporal punishment in the U.S. They discuss a controversial 5-4 decision allowing spanking in schools, in which Powell wrote the majority opinion.

Punishment in Schools is an Issue for the Local Community (02:52)

Lewis Powell deferred to the state law authorizing corporal punishment to maintain order in the classroom, so long as it is not excessive. He believes the cruel and unusual clause applies only to crimes, not to children in school.

A Pivotal Decision on Racial Preferences (02:23)

In the Bakke reverse discrimination case Lewis Powell voted with the 5-4 majority, which said racial quotas were unconstitutional. But the Court also said race could be considered as a factor in admissions in an effort to achieve diversity.

Interpreting the Equal Protection Clause (03:08)

Lewis Powell believes universities have a legitimate interest in student body diversity. The Court took 8 months to reach the Bakke decision. If you read the equal protection clause literally, you could conclude that race should never be given any consideration.

Saving Affirmative Action? (02:24)

Lewis Powell reiterates his belief that states have a legitimate interest in a diverse student body. He regrets that the justices have never agreed on an analytical framework for affirmative action cases that is satisfactory to everyone.

Death Penalty Cases (01:50)

Lewis Powell has consistently voted for the death penalty. Bill Moyers presents the recent history of capital punishment. The Court rejected a racial challenge to the death penalty based on statistical evidence. Powell wrote the majority decision.

The Capital Punishment System (02:24)

Lewis Powell explains that the criminal justice system relies on trial by jury, not statistical studies. The facts in each case are different. People should understand how extensive and thorough the appeals process is in capital cases.

The Deterrent Value of the Death Penalty (01:11)

If Lewis Powell were in the legislature, he might vote against capital punishment. The U.S. has the highest murder rate among Western democracies. There are many factors, but it is hard to prove that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.

Lewis F. Powell's Place in History (01:40)

Lewis Powell is in poor health. He has no plans to retire, but is keeping an open mind. When asked how he thinks he'll be remembered, Powell replies that he is the 99th justice in history, and few are household names. He may be a footnote to history.

Credits and Sponsors: Justice Lewis F. Powell (01:48)

Credits and Sponsors: Justice Lewis F. Powell

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Justice Lewis F. Powell

Part of the Series : In Search of the Constitution
DVD Price: $79.95
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When Lewis Powell, Jr., was appointed to the Supreme Court, he appeared to be a true southern conservative. But once on the court, Powell proved to be his own man—hard to predict, bringing a complex mind to bear on complex issues—from affirmative action to the death penalty. In this program, Powell discusses a variety of issues including Watergate, the Constitution of the former Soviet Union, the death penalty, reverse discrimination, the working of the Court, and corporal punishment. (60 minutes)

Length: 58 minutes

Item#: BVL4916

ISBN: 978-1-4213-9256-1

Copyright date: ©1987

Closed Captioned

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