Was Justice Lewis Powell as good as he was evil?

In all the retrospectives about the 40th anniversary of Watergate and the end of the Nixon administration, there seemed to be little coverage of one of the most controversial decisions of President Richard Nixon’s tenure: his 1971 decision to appoint Powell to the US Supreme Court. On August 23, 1971, just prior to joining the Court, Powell, a prominent Virginia attorney, wrote a controversial memo to the US Chamber of Commerce that served as the foundation for what David Brock once called the “Republican Noise Machine.” Thom Hartmann, Sally Kohn and Sam Seder have discussed the pernicious power of the Powell memo over the years. Here, Noam Chomsky explains how the Powell memo gave us today’s polluted political culture:

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As a associate justice, Powell joined the majority in the January 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision (which promoted the idea that money is a form of speech) and actually wrote for the majority in the April 1978 First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti decision (which promoted the idea that corporations are people with First Amendment rights). Those two rulings paved the way for polluters to (further) manipulate the US political process, and clearly played a key role in the Republican Party’s abandonment of environmental concerns during the Reagan era.

Thanks to Powell’s mischief, the fight to solve the climate crisis can only be won through massive grassroots political activism, not through simple common sense and a recognition of the laws of physics. However, despite his empowerment of those who have wrecked the planet, Powell was also, from a certain perspective, a climate hawk.

Powell happened to be a passionate defender of a woman’s right to choose, joining the majority in the January 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Steven Conn explained why Powell recognized the importance of reproductive rights:

[Powell’s] belief in a woman’s right to choose grew from an experience Powell had while he was a lawyer in Richmond. The girlfriend of one of Powell’s office staff had become pregnant, the couple tried to abort the fetus themselves and the young woman wound up bleeding to death. Powell, shaken by this grisly event, persuaded prosecutors not to file charges against the young man, and once on the Supreme Court he championed women’s right to choose so that they would not die in circumstances like that.

If you accept the idea that a strong defense of reproductive rights is a key part of resolving the climate crisis, then you have to give Powell a modicum of credit for his enlightened views on choice. If you specifically accept the idea that an expansion of reproductive rights is necessary to avoid radical and unsustainable population growth, Powell deserves more than a modicum of credit.

Let’s be honest: we cannot have infinite population growth on a finite planet. In order to seriously address the climate crisis, population growth has to be slowed–and one way to do that is by expanding and protecting reproductive rights domestically and internationally.

You know how the anti-abortion hardliners always say that there have been 50 million abortions in the United States since 1973? Ask yourself what would have happened if those abortions hadn’t taken place, and how large the carbon footprint of those families would have been. We probably would have already passed 800 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and would have been well on our way to, shall we say, a massive population reduction.

Those of us who recognize that Roe v. Wade was good for the climate, and that Buckley v. Valeo and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti were bad for the climate, must contend with Powell’s complex legacy. Such a shame that a man who was so wise on the issue of choice was so wrong on the issue of cash.

Tomorrow is the sixteenth anniversary of Powell’s passing. Think about what he did for this country…and what he did to it.

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D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.