Forty years ago this month, on August 10, 1976, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. delivered an address containing a passage that is perhaps his most frequently repeated quotation. The occasion was “Legal Services Corporation: A Presidential Program of the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association” held that year in Atlanta, Georgia. The subtitle of the event was “Legal Services for the Poor – Looking Ahead” and its sponsors were the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants of the ABA, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and the Legal Services Corporation. F. William McCalpin, himself a champion of legal aid to the poor, introduced Powell as “the man singly most responsible for bringing the legal profession of the United States into the modern world of legal aid” during his 1964-65 term as President of the American Bar Association. On taking the podium, Powell began his speech by recalling another of his speeches, this at the 1965 National Conference on Law and Poverty. The plainspoken Powell then lapsed into a moment of true eloquence stating, “Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. … It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”
The speech went on to trace the history of legal aid in the United States, praise the great progress that had been made in the past eleven years, and to lay out the challenges yet unmet. Powell was followed by an “English jurist long associated with the cause of legal aid in his country”, Lord High Chancellor Elwyn-Jones, and other speakers closed the program.
But it was Powell’s uncharacteristically soaring passage that has endured. Putting the exact quotation in a search engine produces some 300 matches in model acts, scholarly articles, books of notable quotations, power point presentations, and captions for legal aid clinics.