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UI law professor and former clerk: Powell carried his role as 'majority maker' with dignity

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell often knew he would cast the deciding vote in some of the nation's most pivotal legal cases, but always focused on coming to the right decision and bringing as much consensus to the court as possible, says Eric G. Andersen, professor of law at the University of Iowa and a former clerk to Powell.

"Justice Powell always did what he could to get the right decision," Andersen says. "The configuration of the court for much of his tenure was such that he often found himself in the middle, as someone who would have a lot of influence on what results were reached, and on how court opinions were framed."

"He was well aware of that and the other members of the court were aware of it, but Justice Powell never let his position of influence go to his head," Andersen says. "He always based his decisions on the law as he understood it, while working to persuade his colleagues by force of sound reasoning and analysis."

Powell, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1987, died in his sleep early Tuesday at the age of 90. Selected to serve on the Supreme Court in 1971, Powell is known for his role as a "majority maker" on the court who avoided political ideology of the left or the right.

Andersen, who joined the UI law faculty in 1984, clerked for Powell from the summer of 1978 to the summer of 1979. As a clerk, Andersen helped research and write some of the opinions issued by Powell and the court, but clerks consider themselves under an ethical obligation not to discuss their roles with respect to individual cases.

Andersen has nothing but praise for Powell.

"The word 'gentleman' is apt, but it doesn't go far enough to describe Justice Powell," Andersen says. "He was as dignified and as kindly a man as you would ever want to meet or work for. He not only brought honor to himself by a life filled with stunning personal accomplishments, but also improved and dignified every calling he undertook, and every office he held. He enriched many individual lives, including mine, profoundly."

Powell cast the deciding vote in several controversial cases during his tenure, including the 1978 "Bakke" decision that upheld the concept of affirmative action, the 1985 case that ruled adults have no constitutional right to engage in homosexual activity, and the 1971 ruling that presidents are immune from lawsuits for monetary damages that arise from actions they take as president.

Andersen earned his law degree in 1977 from Brigham Young University. At the UI, he teaches courses in contract law, family law and a course on Roman law.

For further comments, contact Andersen at (319) 335-9090.