Richard H. Poff, Virginia congressman, dies at 87

June 29, 2011

Former representative Richard H. Poff, a conservative Virginia Republican who turned down a U.S. Supreme Court nomination in 1971, in part because of the attention it would bring to his stark record on civil rights and to spare his family public scrutiny during the confirmation process, died June 27 at a nursing home in Tullahoma, Tenn. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by Kilgore Funeral Home in Tullahoma. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Poff was in his 10th congressional term when his name surfaced as President Richard M. Nixon’s first choice to replace the late Justice Hugo Black on the nation’s high court.

The congressman, who represented a western Virginia district that included Roanoke, had earned Nixon’s favor by supporting the president’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Poff had also played a key role in crafting and passing the president’s anti-crime legislation.

Mr. Poff had often said that serving on the U.S. Supreme Court was his life’s ambition. But his record on social issues, particularly civil rights, made him a divisive figure whose proposed nomination brought a wave of resistance from liberal groups.

As a young House member, Mr. Poff had joined 100 other Southern congressmen in signing the “Southern Manifesto” protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. The manifesto, written two years after the 1954 court decision, railed against the landmark court decision as a “clear abuse of judicial power.”

Mr. Poff continued to oppose many civil rights bills in the 1960s but managed through his extensive work on the judiciary committee to win the respect of many Democratic colleagues. By the time of his rumored nomination to the Supreme Court, he had recanted some of his early decisions on the segregation issue.

He said he had signed the Southern Manifesto under intense political pressure, hoping to stave off challenges from more conservative opponents.

“I can only say now that segregation is wrong today, it was wrong yesterday. Segregation was never right,” Mr. Poff told a reporter around the time that he became a front-runner for the Supreme Court nomination.

“But it is one of the most lamentable frailties of mankind that when one’s wrong is most grievous, his self-justification is most passionate, perhaps in the pitiful hope that the fervor of his self-defense will somehow prove him right.”

In October 1971, Mr. Poff abruptly announced he was withdrawing his name from consideration. He said he wanted to spare his family and the nation a “long and divisive confirmation battle.”

The president was reportedly furious — not at Mr. Poff, but at those who had ostensibly forced his resignation, according to a 2001 book by Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean. Nixon’s ultimately successful nominee was Lewis Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer from Virginia.

The real reason for Mr. Poff’s withdrawal emerged a month later in the syndicated column by investigative reporter Jack Anderson and was later corroborated by the firsthand knowledge Dean relayed in his book, “The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Poff had turned down the high court job to protect his 12-year-old son, Tommy, from finding out that he was adopted. Mr. Poff and his wife had been advised by a psychologist to wait until the boy was 17 or 18 before revealing that fact, and they worried that the truth would inevitably leak out during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and vetting process.

Anderson called it a “poignant human story” about a father’s decision to put his family ahead of his career. It was all the more wrenching because Anderson’s revelation destroyed the privacy that Mr. Poff had sought to defend.

When they found out that Anderson was planning to publish the story, the congressman and his wife told their son he was adopted. By then, Mr. Poff had lost his chance to sit on the nation’s highest court.

The following year, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia by A. Linwood Holton Jr., the first Republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction and a strong advocate for racial integration.

Mr. Poff served on the court until his retirement in 1988, and continued as a senior justice until 2002. In an interview Wednesday, Holton said Mr. Poff seemed at home on the bench, whereas on Capitol Hill, he had been frazzled and worried, especially by journalists’ scrutiny.

“He was as nervous as a cat in Congress,” Holton said, recalling that Mr. Poff had once said to him: “Linwood, you saved my life when you put me on that court.”

Richard Harding Poff was born Oct. 19, 1923, in Radford, Va., between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. During World War II, he was an Army Air Forces bomber pilot and flew 35 missions over Europe. His military decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Mr. Poff resolved to go to Congress after one bombing mission that left his plane flak-riddled and his navigator dead. “I decided then that if I were elected, I would dedicate my life in politics to the cause of peace,” he later said.

He attended Roanoke College before the war and, in 1948, received a law degree from the University of Virginia. He then practiced at a Radford firm started by Ted Dalton, a leading figure in the state GOP.

In the column that revealed the secret about Mr. Poff’s adopted son, Anderson noted that Mr. Poff had such a reputation for guarding his family’s privacy that some in Washington called him the “Howard Hughes of politics.”

The former congressman had three children with his first wife, Jo Ann Topper Poff. She died in 1978 after 32 years of marriage. He married Jean Murphy in 1980. She died in 2007, according to her obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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