Judicial admiration: Q&A with Lucas A. Powe Jr.

Judicial admiration: Q&A with Lucas A. Powe Jr.

The School of Law is hosting a conference on judicial biography and the Supreme Court in memory of Professor Roy M. Mersky, longtime director of the Tarlton Law Library and the Jamail Center for Legal Research, who died in May 2008.

Lucas A. Powe Jr., a panelist for the conference, shared his thoughts on judicial biography and the late Mersky.

What expertise do you bring to the panel discussion?
I have written one book on a specific era of the Supreme Court called "1953 to 1969 and the Warren Court." More recently I've published a history of the Supreme Court from its inception through 2008. Between these two books, I have an excellent feel for the Court, as well as for how different eras of judicial decision-making and American history should be organized. For instance, most discussions of the Court talk about the Court as if it were controlled by its chief justice. I think this is a great mistake since most chief justices have no more influences on the Court than any one of its other members. In fact, John Marshall (1801-1835) and Earl Warren (1953-1969) are the only chief justices who personified the Court that they presided over.

Is there a judge who merits a biography, even if he or she were never appointed to the Court?
Yes, there are several, especially Roger J. Traynor who was chief justice of the California Supreme Court in the middle of the 20th century. But in fact, the great Supreme Court justices for the most part have not been judges at the time of their appointment. For example, John Marshall, a former U.S. congressman, was U.S. secretary of state when he was appointed. And Charles Evans Hughes (1910-1916 and 1930-1941) was in private practice when he was appointed, although previously he had been governor of New York, a losing candidate in the 1916 presidential election and a U.S. secretary of state.

Who are two great lawyers who have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court that you admire?
The two great lawyers are Louis D. Brandeis (1916-1939) and Robert H. Jackson (1941-1954). Brandeis was one of a handful of candidates [who could have qualified] as the best lawyer of the 20th century. He brought the same meticulous preparation to his judicial work as he did to his clients' business. Jackson was solicitor general and then attorney general under President Franklin Roosevelt. Jackson was probably the best in the 20th century at each of those jobs. On the Court, he had the finest writing style of any justice in American history. His opinions are a pleasure to read.

Why is this conference honoring Roy Mersky?
Roy was our long-time director of the Tarlton Law Library and his pet interests were judicial biography and the U.S. Supreme Court. Shortly before he died, Sandy Levinson and I met with him to discuss a conference in his honor and he enthusiastically backed the idea of a conference on judicial biography.

Professors H.W. Brands and David Oshinsky will moderate the panel discussion.

The conference is free and open to the public, and will be held in the Law School's Eidman Courtroom tomorrow (Jan. 29) at 9 a.m., with a welcome and introduction by Law School Dean Larry Sager and Terry Martin, interim director of the Tarlton Law Library and the Jamail Center for Legal Research and a visiting professor of law.

Sanford Levinson and Powe organized the conference originally as a tribute, not as a memorial, to Mersky. His interest in judicial biography and particularly in the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States was longstanding.

In the photo: Lucas A. Powe Jr., Anne Green Regents Chair in the School of Law.