The Court's Pivot Man

Powell resigns, opening a door to the right

"The key problem," Justice Lewis Powell once said, "is one of balance." He was referring to conflicts between the rights of criminal suspects and society's need for law-and-order. But he might have been describing his role on the Supreme Court. For more than 15 years Powell sought constantly to strike a balance between conflicting interests as well as between the court's liberal and conservative wings. He became the least predictable of the nine Justices and perhaps the court's central figure, casting the swing vote in one 5-to-4 decision after another. His resignation last week gave Ronald Reagan the chance to tilt...