Trailblazing Jurist Selected as Commencement Speaker

Cleo Powell ’82 Is First Black Woman To Serve on State Supreme Court
Cleo Powell

Justice Cleo Powell ’82 was appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia in 2011.

July 30, 2020

Supreme Court of Virginia Justice Cleo E. Powell, a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, will serve as the school’s commencement speaker for the Class of 2021 in May.

In 2011, Powell became the first Black woman appointed to the state Supreme Court.

She previously served on the Court of Appeals of Virginia, starting in 2008. She was a judge on the Chesterfield/Colonial Heights Circuit Court, starting in 2000, and its General District Court, where she first became a judge, in 1993.

Powell also served as a senior assistant attorney general in the Equal Employment Opportunity and Personnel Division from 1986-89.

Maria Luevano ’21 and Savanna Williams ’21, Student Bar Association Graduation Committee co-chairs, said in a joint statement that they hoped to feature a speaker with a “diverse background” because “in legal academia this voice is often lacking, and we sought to do a small part to change that narrative.”

“Recent events in our country and calls for increased attention to diversity at UVA Law made us steadfast in our resolve to select a person of color to share their wisdom and perspective at our graduation ceremony,” they said. “We also hoped that person would hold a connection with both UVA Law and possibly the Commonwealth of Virginia as well. Justice Powell was an obvious choice that met all of our goals.”

Upon ascending to the Supreme Court, Powell began leading the Rule of Law Day at the Capitol in conjunction with the Diversity Conference and the Young Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar. The purpose of the program is to educate middle and high school students about rule-of-law principles and the operations of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

“What I know now is that some of us have walked that path in the snow,” Powell said at a 2011 Law School conference on diversity in the legal profession, “and so we need to bring along some young person who doesn’t really know what it is to make it from Point A to Point B, and we need to allow them to walk that path in the snow that we have already carved out.”

Powell also chairs the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee and serves on the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of Virginia.

She has been honored with numerous awards and on numerous lists, including the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Women in History; Dominion’s Strong Men & Women Excellence in Leadership; a Virginia Women Attorneys Association 2010 Leader in Diversity; Virginia Lawyers Weekly Influential Women of Virginia; Metro Richmond Women’s Bar Association Woman of the Year 2009; and the YWCA’s Outstanding Women of the Year.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in American government from UVA.

“The trailblazing path Justice Powell has walked — a path that brought her to the highest court in the commonwealth — has been inspiring to me personally, and I know it has been inspiring to our students,” said Dean Risa Goluboff. “I wish we did not have to wait until next May to hear the wisdom she will share with the Class of 2021, but I know the wait will be well worth it.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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