Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. was described as a pivotal vote at the Supreme Court, but it seems it was Lewis F. Powell III who played that role in his father's decision to retire.
"I don't want to put the blame on him," the justice told reporters, "but I would say that our son, Lewis, who is a lawyer . . . said, 'Dad, it's a whole lot better to go out when some people may be sorry than it is to wait until, when you decide to go . . . people say, 'Thank God, we got rid of that old gent.' "
In a telephone interview yesterday, the younger Powell -- the only son among the Powells' four children -- said he had urged his father to remain on the high court when he considered retiring five years ago.
"When he went to the court, I think he had in his own mind that he would stay 10 years," said Powell, now with his father's former Richmond firm, Hunton & Williams. "Consequently, when he had been there 10 years, he thought about whether he should step aside."
At that time, Powell said, he and his three older sisters urged his father to remain on the court. "Ten years just didn't seem like enough," said Powell, 34. "He was in great health. We were worried about what he might do. As I guess his career suggests, he has always been very, very active." In fact, he said, jokingly referring to the experience of many couples when a husband who has worked hard his entire life is suddenly underfoot at home, "Maybe we did have our mother's interest in mind perhaps more than we let on."
Powell said that several weeks ago his father again raised the issue of retiring and told him of his final decision earlier last week. "I was not surprised," he said. "It's a subject that he has thought about from time to time."
Now, Powell said, it remains to be seen what the man accustomed to working a 6 1/2-day week will do.
Even during the court's summer recess, when the justice returned home to Richmond, his son said, he kept an office in the federal courthouse there and spent time plowing through petitions asking the court to hear cases.
"He doesn't have a rose garden," Powell said. "He really has not had the time to develop active hobbies." The justice has "no specific plans," his son said, but as a retired justice he may serve on federal appeals courts "and I think that's something he'd like to do."
Asked how he would like his father's service to be remembered, Powell demurred in a way reminiscent of his father's modest southern manner, saying he was too biased.
Pressed, Powell said, "He took no ideological perspective to the court and he went there determined to . . . decide each case on its own merits guided by the Constitution and precedent. To me as a lawyer, that defines the essence of judging, and I think, again through my very biased perspective, he's done that.
"As a lawyer and as a citizen, I'm grateful for that," he added. "As his son, I'm very proud of that."