Wes Powell, BA’91: Crusader for Justice

Wes Powell (SHIA LEVITT)
Wes Powell (SHIA LEVITT)

In July 2004, Wes Powell received what he now refers to as “the Guantánamo call.” Life hasn’t been the same since.

That same year the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that men imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had a right to challenge their detention in federal court. After Powell’s law firm agreed to represent Guantánamo prisoners, Powell—a corporate litigator and antitrust lawyer for 20 years—received a phone call from the partner in charge of pro bono work at his firm. Hours later he was lead counsel to three French citizens who had been held in Guantánamo since early 2002.

“All three are now home in France,” Powell says. “I have also represented four more men—three Yemenis and one Libyan, one of whom was released in January 2016 to Estonia after 13 years of captivity. He had been held since he was 17 without being charged with any crime. To achieve his release after such a long time—that success is shrouded in tragedy.

“In the end, I left this 10-year experience with no regrets about participating in these cases because they represented our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.”

More recently, Powell has been involved in a pro bono case that fought for transgender New Yorkers to receive Medicaid coverage for gender dysphoria treatments. “It’s hard to compare the two cases,” he says. “Guantánamo was such an odyssey, but the Medicaid case feels momentous. Transgender people are some of the most misunderstood and mistreated among us. I’m proud to advocate for their rights.”

In addition to his pro bono work, Powell gives back in many other ways. At Vanderbilt he has served on the Alumni Board of Directors and is currently on the College of Arts and Science Board of Visitors, supporting the college philanthropically as well. He also was fundraising chair for his class’ 25th Reunion, ultimately helping the class win the Reunion cup for highest giving participation.

In 2009, Powell established the Chad Presswood Memorial Scholarship to honor a classmate who passed away in 1999. The scholarship, which supports College of Arts and Science students, is part of the larger Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative to provide grants and scholarship to undergraduate students with financial need.

“I’m inspired by Opportunity Vanderbilt. It’s an extraordinary thing to send so many kids away from Vanderbilt debt-free who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to attend,” Powell says. “When I receive information about my scholarship’s recipient, I always pass it along to Chad’s mother as well as his Vanderbilt friends. It means a lot to us that we can honor Chad in this way.”