Passing of Justice Poff of Roanoke

Here’s the story of Justice (and former U.S. Congressman) Richard Poff who died on Tuesday at the age of 96.

H/T to an excellent post by Mason Conservative on this subject.

Prior to the War, Virginia politics was dominated by the Byrd Organization at the county, state and Federal level.  All power accrued to the rural courthouses, due to the lopsided allocation of representation.  U.S. Senator Byrd controlled this system through the Democratic party and maintained a conservative philosophy (with some exceptions) that dominated all aspects of Virginia governance. 

In 1952, Byrd used his “golden silence” to propel Eisenhower to victory in Virginia, the first Republican to ever carry the Commonwealth.  Unexpectedly, Eisenhower’s coattails also brought in three Republican Congressmen, including Poff in the 6th Congressional district.  (It also brought in Joel Broyhill of the new 10th district in Arlington).  These were the first cracks in the Democratic one-party machine.

It was bound to happen.  After the War, the suburbs began to gain population and eventually power.  Veterans coming home from the War were less beholden to the older interests.   New politicians sprang up on the right and left to challenge the Byrd machine. 

By the mid 1960′s, with the collapse of “massive resistance” and the adoption of “one man, one vote,” the death knell was sounding for the Byrd machine.  In the 1966 election, the Democratic primary saw the election of Bill  Spong of Norfolk, who was the first “liberal” to hold office since the Re-adjuster Movement in the 1870′s. 

As for Poff, he held his seat for twenty years before retiring and joining the Virginia Supreme Court in 1972, where he authored several notable opinions.  The Federal courthouse in Roanoke is named after him (I made my first court appearances there in 1993 as a third-year law student practicing with the U.S. Attorney).

Poff has been one of many Supreme Court justices that have died this year.  He lived a life that spanned several generations in Virginia and saw its maturation as a true democracy.

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  • Chris

    small correction, Senator. Herbert Hoover carried Virginia in 1928 thanks to the prohibition issues and Al Smith’s Catholicism.

  • Tama

    On behalf of Justice Poff’s son Tom, thank you for your post about his father.

  • Chap

    THanks for both comments. Chris, I stand corrected and should have known better re 1928 (as my great-grandfather F.S. McCandlish was a delegate to the national Dem Convention that year). Hoover was a “dry” and that was enough to get him thru.

  • Joseph

    Thanks for the history lesson Chap, appreciate it.

  • Bwana

    I posted this at MC, but I thought I would add it to the discussion here…

    My favorite Richard Poff story is found in the book “Conversations with Colgate”, a series of interviews Guy Friddell conducted with former Governor and UVa President Colgate Darden.

    Darden was head of Wahoo U after WW2. As at many schools, impromptu houseing was created for veterans coming back to school, many of whom had families. UVa created a housing in the Copeley Hill area.

    A problem developed. Lots of families had young children, and lots of families had dogs. Disagreements erupted over who should be doing what, especially after several incidents where the kids were knocked over or hurt by the dogs. An impromptu town meeting erupted into a brawl.

    Darden’s office was inundated with calls and visits asking him to do something. Darden had heard good things about a decorated veteran named Richard Poff who lived in the Copeley trailers and was going to law school. Darden called him in and designated Poff the Mayor of Copely Hill. Dadren authorized Poff to organize Copeley Hill, set rules, do what had to be done to fix the problems. Poff did as requested, organized the area, and the complaints ceased.

    To the date Darden died in 1981 he had a special name for Richard Poff. He did not refer to him as Congressman Poff. He did not refer to him as Justice Poff. No, Darden forever called him “Mr. Mayor”.

    Full details in Guy Fridell’s “Conversations with Colgate”

  • Chap

    Thank you Bwana. What a neat story. I remember Copeley Hill as a law student in 1994. It was still designated as “married student housing” and was filled with mostly grad students, their spouses and their progeny. Needless to say, I avoided it!