A Virginia Woman in History and a Captain for Life - Christopher Newport University


Virginia Supreme Court Justice Cleo Powell sits in the foreground while being applauded by her fellow Justices. Closest to her is Senior Justice William Mims.

A Virginia Woman in History and a Captain for Life

Virginia Supreme Court Senior Justice William Mims reflects on the pioneering legacy of fellow Supreme Court Justice Cleo Powell.

Above: Virginia Supreme Court Justice receives applause from Senior Justice William Mims and her colleagues on the court.

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“When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” (Luke 12:48; New Living Translation)

This is the story of two Virginians who have lived parallel lives for 65 years.

Both graduated from public high schools in Virginia in 1975. Both went to respected Virginia public universities. Both became lawyers. Both worked for the same large law firm in Richmond. Both spent decades of their careers in public service, including serving in the Office of the Attorney General.

Both have a strong faith, as followers of Jesus. Both are leaders in their church. Both are committed to teaching young people. Both would read the scripture from the Gospel of Luke printed above and say “that applies to me.”

Both were elected to the Supreme Court of Virginia by the General Assembly. They sat side-by-side as justices for more than a decade.

Notably, both are proud parents of Christopher Newport University alumni. Just like their children, CNU parents are “Captains for Life.” Many maintain a close bond with the university community.

These two individuals could be twins, couldn’t they?


I am one of the people described. I am a white male. Justice Cleo Elaine Powell is the other person. She is a Black female. In fact, she is the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia in its 243-year history.

Despite the remarkable parallels, our stories also have important differences.

As a high school senior from a middle-class family in Harrisonburg, I was a bit of a slacker. (That’s a polite way to say I was immature, more interested in sports than studying, and I had an unimpressive grade point average.) I only wanted to go to one college — William & Mary — but I was wait-listed. I was admitted only after my father asked his boss, a prominent public official, to call the college president to recommend me.

As a high school senior in rural Brunswick County, the same locality where her ancestors had been enslaved, Cleo Powell was an A student. She only wanted to go to one college — the University of Virginia. She was admitted only after her father borrowed $35 so she could file her application.

My story is one of a loving family, hard work, supportive mentors, a few fortunate breaks, and the privilege that has accompanied being a white male for most of the Commonwealth’s history.

Cleo Powell’s story is one of a loving family, hard work, supportive mentors, a few fortunate breaks, and the constitutional promise of equal opportunity that courts have only recently guaranteed to black women.

A decade before she applied, Cleo would have been denied admission to the University of Virginia. Even in 1975, she was part of a small minority within a small minority. Undergraduate women had only been admitted starting in 1970. When she arrived, Black students comprised less than 5% of the student body. Her chosen path was not an easy one.

Now, more than four decades later, Cleo humbly gives credit to her parents, and the borrowed $35, for her success: “They wanted a better life for us than they had, so they gave us everything they could to make it happen,” she said.

As a young student, Cleo “dreamed of being a servant of the law. I aspired to ferret out injustice.” This dream took hold when she was just 13 years old: “Growing up, I didn’t sit in any courthouses. I didn’t know any lawyers or hang out with any lawyers, but I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”

After earning two degrees from UVA and working briefly for a law firm, Cleo entered the public sector in 1986 where she served as a senior assistant attorney general enforcing equal employment laws. She was appointed a judge of the Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights General District Court in 1993. Seven years later she was appointed to the Chesterfield Circuit Court.

Named to the Virginia Court of Appeals in 2008, Cleo Powell was the first Black woman to sit on an appellate court. In 2011 the General Assembly elected her to the Supreme Court of Virginia, another first for a Black woman. She also is one of only five Virginia judges to serve at all four levels of the Virginia court system. She has rightly been honored by the Library of Virginia as a “Virginia Woman in History.”

The fifth woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court, Cleo Powell tirelessly advocates for diversity in the legal profession. Throughout her career, she often speaks to young people to encourage them to reach their full potential and make a positive difference. “Education can level some often unlevel playing fields,” she said. “I would like to sit down with every student and say to them ‘you can do it.’ I also want to share my love for the law.”

While she cannot sit down with every student, Cleo is dedicated to passing on the torch to many who will follow in her footsteps. Numerous aspiring young lawyers in Virginia have received an unexpected and appreciated invitation:

“Often I will meet someone aspiring to be a lawyer, and I will invite them to call me to talk. Often the call results in a long-term relationship where I am available when needed at different phases of their journey.”

For a young lawyer, having Supreme Court Justice Cleo Powell as a mentor would be a dream come true.

Despite her myriad successes, Cleo Powell’s colleagues uniformly describe humility as a defining characteristic. Chief Justice Bernard Goodwyn reflects, “Justice Powell is the consummate judicial servant leader. She humbly explains that she ‘stands on the shoulders of giants.’ It is without irony that I observe, she has become one of those giants. She has given thousands of inner-city students the opportunity to stand on her shoulders and receive a civics education unlike any other through her involvement with the Center for the Rule of Law Project.”

And Justice Arthur Kelsey notes, “If Thomas Merton is right that pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real, Cleo Powell is one of the most real persons I’ve ever known.”

An interesting sidenote. Justice Kelsey is the third member of the Virginia Supreme Court to be a “Captain for Life” as the parent of an alumnus. And Justice Wesley G. Russell, Jr.’s father, Glenn Russell, was the CNU varsity basketball coach in the 1980’s. Perhaps it won’t be long until a CNU graduate serves on the Commonwealth’s highest court?

In Justice Cleo Powell’s life, the words from the Gospel of Luke ring true. She did not start life’s journey by being “given much.” Yet she has been “entrusted” – in lawyer-speak, literally to hold and protect something that will eventually be given to another – with the hopes and dreams of young people who will be inspired by her example and follow in her footsteps.

Editor’s Note: William Mims took senior status on the Virginia Supreme Court in 2022. He has joined the CNU faculty, where he teaches in the Leadership and American Studies Department and directs the pre-law program.

Cleo Powell’s legacy as a pioneering Virginia public servant leader now will be recognized in perpetuity at CNU. Mims has established and funded the “Justice Cleo Elaine Powell Endowed Merit Scholarship.” It will be awarded annually to freshmen from Virginia with financial needs who have demonstrated the potential for leadership.

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