During World War II, he spent more than three years in Europe and North Africa. He started as a First Lieutenant, and eventually rose to the rank of Colonel. He worked mostly in intelligence, decoding German messages.
Powell was a partner for over a quarter of a century at Hunton, Williams, Gay, Powell and Gibson, a large Virginia law firm, with its primary office in Richmond (now known as Hunton & Williams LLP). Powell practiced primarily in the areas of corporate law (especially in the field of mergers and acquisitions) and in railway litigation law.
In 1936, he married Josephine Pierce Rucker, with whom he had three daughters and one son. Powell's wife died in 1996.
Powell was involved in the development of Colonial Williamsburg, where he was both a trustee and general counsel. In 1971, he wrote the famous Powell Memo to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding politics and law in the U.S. and may have sparked the formation of one or more influential right-wing think tanks.
In an extraordinary prefiguring of the social goals of business that would be felt over the next three decades, Powell set his main goal: Changing how individuals and society think about the corporation, the government, the law, the culture, and the individual became, and would remain, a major goal of business.
He had been a board member of Philip Morris between 1964 until his appointment in 1971, and had acted as a contact point for the tobacco industry with the Virginia Commonwealth University. Through his law firm, Hunton Williams Gay Powell & Gibson (later just Hunton & Williams) he represented the Tobacco Institute and the various tobacco companies in numerous law cases.
He and William Rehnquist were nominated by President Nixon on the same day to serve on the Court. Powell took over the seat of Hugo Black. On the day of Powell's swearing-in, when Rehnquist's wife Nan asked Josephine Powell if this was the most exciting day of her life, Josephine reportedly said, "No, it is the worst day of my life. I am about to cry."
Powell compiled a decidedly moderate record on the Court, cultivating a reputation as a swing vote with a penchant for compromise. (The most detailed account of Justice Powell's Supreme Court tenure is in John Jeffries's biography Lewis F. Powell).
For example, his opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, (1978) joined by no other justice in full, represented a compromise between the opinions of Justice William J. Brennan, who, joined by three other justices, would have upheld affirmative action programs under a lenient judicial test, and the opinion of John Paul Stevens, also joined by three justices, who would have struck down the affirmative action program at issue in the case under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Powell's opinion striking down the law urged that "strict scrutiny" be applied to affirmative action programs, while hinting that some affirmative action programs might pass Constitutional muster. Powell, who dissented in the case of Furman v. Georgia (1972), striking down capital punishment statutes, was a key mover behind the Court's compromise opinion in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), which allowed the return of capital punishment but only with procedural safeguards.
In the notorious case of Snepp v. U.S. (1980), the Court issued a per curiam opinion imposing a constructive trust upon former CIA agent Frank Snepp and forcing him to preclear all his published writings with the CIA for the rest of his life. In 1997, Snepp gained access to the files of Justices Thurgood Marshall (who had already died) and William Brennan (who voluntarily granted Snepp access), and confirmed his suspicion that Powell had been the author of the per curiam opinion. Snepp later claimed Powell had never checked his own misstatements of the factual record against the actual case file and that the only Justice who even looked at the case file was John Paul Stevens, who relied upon it in composing his dissent.Bowers v. Hardwick, , opting to go with the majority ruling which upheld Georgia's sodomy laws. He was reportedly distressed over how to vote. A conservative clerk advised him to uphold the ban, and Powell, who believed he had never met a gay person (not realizing that one of his own clerks was a closeted homosexual), voted to uphold Georgia's law, though Powell in a concurring opinion expressed concern at the length of the prison terms prescribed by the law. The Court, 17 years later, expressly overruled Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, .
Powell also expressed post-retirement regret over his majority opinion in McCleskey v. Kemp, where he voted to uphold the death penalty against a study that demonstrated that - except as punishment for the most violent of crimes - people who killed whites were significantly more likely to receive the death penalty as punishment for their crimes than people who killed blacks.
Following his retirement from the high court, Powell sat regularly on various United States Courts of Appeals around the country, especially enjoying sitting on circuit courts venued in temperate climes during the winter months.
Justice Powell died at his home in the Windsor Farms area of Richmond, Virginia, of pneumonia, at 4:30 in the morning of August 25, 1998, at the age of 90. He is buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
In her 2002 book, The Majesty of the Law, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "For those who seek a model of human kindness, decency, exemplary behavior, and integrity, there will never be a better man."
Powell's personal and official papers were donated to Washington and Lee University Law School, where they are open for research subject to certain restrictions.
J. Harvie Wilkinson, currently a judge on Fourth Circuit, was a law clerk for Justice Powell. Wilkinson later wrote a book titled Serving Justice: A Supreme Court Clerk's View describing the experience.