Soul of RVA: Justice Cleo Powell, the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On October 21, 2011, Cleo Elaine Powell made history as she stood before a crowd in the Supreme Court of Virginia.

With her hand placed on her late father’s bible, she was sworn in as the 102nd justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia. When Powell took the oath, she broke barriers becoming the first African American woman to ever hold the position.

Justice Cleo Powell
Photo provided by Justice Cleo Powell
Justice Cleo Powell
Photo provided by Justice Cleo Powell

“There is pressure in wanting to do the best job that you can,” Powell said, as she reflected on her time on the bench. “And [the] pressure in getting it right for the people and wanting to do your job well enough to leave the door open for others to come after you.”

It’s a mantra that she said was passed down to her and her five siblings from her parents, Millas Powell Jr. and Mary Powell, during her humble upbringing in Brunswick County, Virginia.

“They wanted a better life for us than they had, so they gave us everything they could to make it happen,” she said.

Powell credits her family’s support as the catalyst that pushed her through four years of undergrad at the University of Virginia and then the University of Virginia School of Law.

Justice Cleo Powell
Photo provided by Justice Cleo Powell

Through education, dedication and mentorship, Powell navigated the legal field. In 1993, she began her stint as a general district court judge in Chesterfield and Colonial Heights. In 2000, she moved on to become a circuit court judge.

Eight years later, in 2008, Powell made history and became the first African American woman to join the Virginia Court of Appeals.

While she has served in several capacities, Justice Powell said she’s often reminded of the values that drew her to law when she was just 13 years old.

“If lawyers are that personable and have that much presence and care about what others have to say, then sign me up … that’s what I want to do,” she said. “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.”

Now, decades later, the passion still remains.

Justice Cleo Powell
Photo provided by Justice Cleo Powell

As she approaches her 10th year sitting on the bench of Virginia’s highest court, Powell wants to pass the torch to the next generation and help them find their voice through education.

“Education can level some often unleveled 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.”

And whether it’s making a key decision on a pivotal case or passing along her wisdom, Justice Powell carries an important set of values.

“Do unto others as you wish, love your neighbor and treat everyone with dignity and respect,” she said.

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