Powell Archives History

In December 1989, Retired Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., announced his intention to leave his personal and professional papers to the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Powell, an alumnus of the College (1929) and the School of Law (1931), based his decision primarily on the commitment by Washington and Lee to build an addition to Sydney Lewis Hall to include areas which would both house his papers and facilitate their use by researchers. Construction on the Powell Wing began in 1990, the same year that the Powell Archivist was hired. The new facilities were dedicated on April 4, 1992.

The original schedule for the preparation of the Powell papers for research use foresaw the papers being assembled at Washington and Lee in 1991. They would have remained closed until arrangement and description were completed by the archivist and a full time assistant in 1996. This schedule was soon abandoned. For a myriad of reasons -- chiefly the delays in construction and in the publication of an authorized biography -- the papers were not substantially assembled in the archives until August 1993. Further, no one foresaw how prolific Justice Powell would remain for so long in his retirement. The bulk of these later papers were not transferred to the archives until December 1996. Finally, properly preserving the richness and complexity of the documentation within each of the 2,500 Supreme Court case files would have, in itself, made the original schedule impossible to meet.

The law school archives had not been idle during the three years that passed between its establishment and the arrival of a substantial body of the Powell Papers. The papers of U.S. Congressman M. Caldwell Butler, which had had come to the school in the late 1970's and early 1980's were processed, and opened for general research. Manuscript and archival materials discovered in closets and machine rooms of the law school were brought to the archives and prepared for research use. The Powell Archivist served on a university records management committee and conducted most of the record surveys authorized by that entity. He drafted preliminary records schedules and guidelines for the university. In this process, the Powell Archives was given authority and responsibility for School of Law records past and present.

By 1994, a multifaceted archival program, which included about a dozen manuscript collections, was in place in the law school. At this time, about seventy percent of the Powell papers had been delivered to the archives. They were stored in record cartons and preliminarily inventoried. A card index to the Supreme Court case files, which had been prepared by Justice Powell's secretary, facilitated highly accurate retrieval from that important series. With Justice Powell's permission (and within the access provisions previously established with him), the Archives declared the Powell Papers to be open to researchers in April of that year.

The delivery of information about the collection through the medium of the World Wide Web, also began around this time. The spreadsheet that would become the basis for all future Supreme Court case files finding aids was created in 2001.

In 2002, work was completed on an Encoded Archival Description (EAD) guide to the papers. It has been available both at this website and through the Virginia Heritage Project since 2003. Processing continued while the number of visiting researchers increased. As processing proceeded, an evolving guide to the papers, separate from but compatible with the EAD guide, was made available online.

In 2011, the page-by-page processing of the Supreme Court case files was completed. This is reflected in the highly accurate spreadsheet guide to this most important series. 2011 also saw the first availability of selected case file availability online through this site. This effort will continue.