William O. Douglas

William O. Douglas

Infobox Judge
name = William O. Douglas

imagesize =
caption =
office = Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
termstart = April 17 1939
termend = November 12 1975
nominator = Franklin Delano Roosevelt
appointer =
predecessor = Louis D. Brandeis
successor = John Paul Stevens
office2 = 3rd Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission
termstart2 = 1937
termend2 = 1939
president2 = Franklin D. Roosevelt
predecessor2 = James M. Landis
successor2 = Jerome Frank
birthdate = birth date|1898|10|16|mf=y
birthplace = Maine Township, Minnesota
deathdate = death date and age|1980|1|19|1898|10|16|mf=y
deathplace = Washington, D.C.
spouse =
religion = Presbyterian

William Orville Douglas (October 16, 1898January 19, 1980) was a United States Supreme Court Associate Justice. With a term lasting 36 years and 209 days, he is the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court.

Early life

Douglas was born in Maine Township, Minnesota, the son of an itinerant Scots Presbyterian minister from Pictou County, Nova Scotia. [. Ernest Kerr, "Imprint of the Maritimes", 1959, Boston: Christopher Publishing, p. 83.] His family moved to California, and then to Cleveland, Washington. His father died in Portland, Oregon in 1904, when he was only six years old. After moving from town to town in the West, his mother, with three young children, settled the family in Yakima, Washington. William, like the rest of the Douglas family, worked at odd jobs to earn extra money, and a college education appeared to be unaffordable. Though not the valedictorian, Douglas did well enough in high school to win a scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. "Current Biography 1941", pp233-35 ]

While at Whitman, Douglas was a member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. He worked at various jobs while attending school, as a waiter and janitor during the school year, and at a cherry orchard in the summer. Picking cherries, Douglas would say later, inspired him to a legal career. He once said of his early interest in the law:

"I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the I.W.W's who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law." [Whitman, Alden. (1980). "Vigorous Defender of Rights." "The New York Times," Sunday, January 20, 1980, p. 28.]

Douglas was elected Phi Beta Kappa and was student body president in his final year. After graduating in 1920 with a B.A. in English and economics, he taught English and Latin at Yakima High Schools for the next two years, hoping to earn enough to attend law school. "Finally," he said, "I decided it was impossible to save enough money by teaching and I said to hell with it". He travelled to New York (taking on a job tending sheep on a Chicago-bound train, in return for free passage), with hopes to attend the Columbia Law School. Douglas's Beta Theta Pi membership helped him survive in New York, as he stayed at one of its houses and was able to borrow $75 from a fraternity brother from Washington, enough to enroll at Columbia. "Current Biography 1941", p234 ]

Six months later, Douglas's funds were running out. However, the appointments office at the law school let him know that a New York firm wanted a student to help prepare a correspondence course for law. Douglas earned $600 for his work, enabling him to stay in school. Moreover, he was called on for similar projects and had saved $1,000 by semester's end. He then went to La Grande, Oregon, to marry Mildred Riddle, whom he had known at Yakima. He graduated fifth in his class in 1925, although he would thereafter claim to have been second. He went to work at the prestigious New York firm of Cravath, DeGersdorff, Swaine and Wood (later Cravath, Swaine & Moore).

Yale and the SEC

Douglas quit the Cravath firm after four months. After one year, he moved back to Yakima, but soon regretted the move and never actually practiced law there. After a time of unemployment and another months-long stint at Cravath, he went to teach at Columbia. He quickly jumped to join the faculty of Yale Law School.

At Yale, he became an expert on commercial litigation and bankruptcy, and was identified with the legal realist movement, which pushed for an understanding of law based less on formalistic legal doctrines and more on the real-world effects of the law.

While teaching at Yale, he and fellow professor Thurman Arnold were riding the New Haven Railroad and were inspired to set the sign "Passengers will please refrain..." to one of Antonin Dvořák's Humoresques, [http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=55501 web site discussion of song references Douglas's "Go East, Young Man"] which became a common theme on the train and later spread widely into popular culture as an often bawdy song.

In 1934, he left Yale to join the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). There he met Franklin D. Roosevelt and became an adviser and friend to the President. He became chairman in 1937.

On the Bench

In 1939, Justice Louis D. Brandeis resigned from the Supreme Court, and Roosevelt nominated Douglas as his replacement. Douglas later revealed that this had been a great surprise to him—Roosevelt had summoned him to an "important meeting," and Douglas feared that he was to be named as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 62 to 4. The four negative votes were cast by four Republicans: Lynn J. Frazier, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Gerald P. Nye, and Clyde M. Reed). Douglas was sworn into office on April 17, 1939.

In early 1956, Douglas appeared as a guest challenger on the TV panel show, "What's My Line?".

Judicial Philosophy

In general, legal scholars have noted that Douglas's judicial style was unusual in that he did not attempt elaborate justifications for his judicial positions on the basis of text, history, or precedent. Instead, Douglas was known for writing short, pithy opinions which relied on philosophical insights, observations about current politics, and literature, as much as more conventional "judicial" sources.

Ultimately, he himself believed that a judge's role was "not neutral." "The Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of the people...." [cite book |title=The Court Years |last=Douglas |first=William O. |year=1980 |publisher=Random House|pages=p. 8]

On the bench Douglas became known as a strong advocate of First Amendment rights. With fellow Justice Hugo Black, Douglas argued for a "literalist" interpretation of the First Amendment, insisting that the First Amendment's command that "no law" shall restrict freedom of speech should be interpreted literally. He wrote the opinion in "Terminiello v. City of Chicago" (1949) overturning the conviction of a Catholic priest who allegedly caused a "breach of the peace" by making anti-Semitic comments during a raucous public speech. Douglas, joined by Black, furthered his advocacy of a broad reading of First Amendment rights by dissenting from the Supreme Court's decision in "Dennis v. United States" (1952) affirming the conviction of the leader of the U.S. Communist Party.

In 1944 Douglas voted with the majority to uphold Japanese wartime internment, in "Korematsu v. United States", but over the course of his career he grew to become a leading advocate of individual rights. Suspicious of majority rule as it related to social and moral questions, he frequently expressed concern at forced conformity with "the Establishment" in his opinions. For example, Douglas wrote the lead opinion in "Griswold v. Connecticut", finding a "right to privacy" in the "penumbras" of the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights. This went too far for his old ally Black, who dissented in Griswold.

The Rosenberg Case

On June 16, 1953, Douglas granted a temporary stay of execution to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the two confirmed Soviet spies who had been convicted of selling the plans for the atomic bomb to the Russians. The basis for the stay was that the Rosenbergs had been sentenced to die by Judge Irving Kaufman without the consent of the jury. While this was permissible under the Espionage Act of 1917, which the Rosenbergs were tried under, a later law, the Atomic Secrets Act of 1946, held that only the jury could pronounce the death penalty. Since, at the time the stay was granted, the Supreme Court was out of session, this meant that the Rosenbergs could expect to wait at least six months before the case was heard.

When Attorney General Herbert Brownell heard about the stay, however, he immediately took his objection to Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who took the unprecedented step of reconvening the Court before the appointed date and set aside Douglas's stay. [ Douglas had departed for vacation, but on learning of the special session of the Court, he returned to Washington. Bruce Allen Murphy, Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas at pages 324-325 (New York: Random House 2003).]

Due to opposition to his decision, Douglas briefly faced impeachment proceedings in Congress. But attempts to remove him from the Court went nowhere in Congress. ["House Move to Impeach Douglas Bogs Down; Sponsor Is Told He Fails to Prove His Case." "The New York Times," Wednesday, July 1, 1953, p. 18.]

Douglas and the Environment

Douglas was a self-professed outdoorsman, so much so that according to "The Thru-Hiker's Companion", a guide published by the Appalachian Trail Club, Douglas hiked the entire 2,000-mile trail from Georgia to Maine. His love for the environment carried through to his judicial reasoning.

Trees Have Standing

In the landmark environmental law case, "Sierra Club v. Morton", 405 U.S. 727 (1972), Justice Douglas famously, and most colorfully argued that "inanimate objects" should have standing to sue in court:

The critical question of "standing" would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.
He continued:

"Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole - a creature of ecclesiastical law - is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases . . . . So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes - fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."

Ties with Liberal Causes and the Environmental Movement

During the 1960s, he became a spokesman for liberal causes, writing a book published in 1969 entitled "Points of Rebellion" and controversially authoring a piece for Evergreen magazine. Justice Douglas also had extensive ties with the environmental movement. Besides his famous dissent in "Morton", he also served on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club from 1960 to 1962 and wrote prolifically on his love of the outdoors. He is credited with saving the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and inspiring the effort to establish the area as a national park; going as far as to challenge the editorial board of The Washington Post to go with him for a walk on the canal after it had published opinions supporting Congress' plan to pave the canal into a road.Citation|last=Lynch|first=John A.|author-link= |title=Justice Douglas, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and Maryland Legal History|journal=University of Baltimore Law Forum|volume=35|issue=Spring 2005|pages=104-125|date= |year=|url= |doi= |id = ] His efforts convinced the editorial board to change its stance and helped save the park.

In 1962, Douglas wrote a glowing review of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" which was included in the widely-read Book-of-the-Month Club edition. He later would sway the Court in the direction of preserving the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky: a proposal to build a dam and flood the gorge reached the Supreme Court. Douglas visited the area himself (Saturday, November 18th, 1967). The Red River Gorge's Douglas Trail is named in his honor.

The 1970 Impeachment Attempt

Justice Douglas was fully committed to his causes. But because of difficult financial circumstances, he was also forced to maintain a busy speaking and publishing schedule to supplement his income. Never a wealthy man, Douglas became severely burdened financially due to a bitter divorce and settlement with his first wife. He only sank deeper into financial difficulties as settlements with his second and third wives essentially consumed his entire salary as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.

Douglas's steps to supplement his income as a result of his financial situation also included the unusual move of becoming president of the Parvin Foundation. While his efforts on behalf of the Parvin Foundation were legitimate, his ties with the foundation (which was financed by the sale of the infamous Flamingo Hotel by casino financier and foundation founder Albert Parvin), became a prime target for then-House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford. Besides being personally disgusted by Douglas's allegedly illicit lifestyle, Representative Ford was also mindful that Douglas protégé Abe Fortas was forced to resign because of ties to a foundation similar to Parvin. Some have also argued that Ford's impeachment attempt was politically motivated.who|date=December 2007 Those who support this contention note Ford's well-known disappointment with the Senate over the failed nominations of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to succeed Fortas. Thus, in April 1970, Congressman Ford moved to impeach Douglas in an attempt to hit back at the Senate.

Despite careful maneuvering by House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, and an apparent lack of proof of any criminal conduct on the part of Douglas (efforts by Attorney General John N. Mitchell and the Nixon administration to gather evidence to the contrary not withstanding), [ [http://www.ford.utexas.edu/library/speeches/700415a.htm Gerald Ford's Remarks on the Impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, April 15, 1970 ] ] Congressman Ford moved forward in the first major attempt to impeach a Supreme Court Justice in the modern era.

The hearings began in late April 1970. Congressman Ford was the main witness, and attacked Douglas's “liberal opinions,” his “defense of the 'filthy' film "I Am Curious (Yellow)", and his ties with the aforementioned Parvin. Additionally, Douglas was criticized for accepting $350.00 for an article he wrote on folk music in the magazine "Avant Garde". The magazine’s publisher had served a prison sentence for the distribution of another magazine in 1966 that had been deemed pornographic. Describing Douglas’ article, Ford stated, “The article itself is not pornographic, although it praises the lusty, lurid, and risqué along with the social protest of left-wing folk singers.” Ford also attacked Douglas for his article in "Evergreen" Magazine, which was infamous for its proclivity for pictures of naked women. The Republican congressmen, however, refused to give the majority Democrats copies of the magazines, prompting Congressman Wayne Hays to remark "“Has anybody read the article -- or is everybody over there who has a magazine just looking at the pictures?” [ [http://www.dissidentvoice.org/May05/Gerard0507.htm (DV) Gerard: Conservatives, Judicial Impeachment, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas ] ]

When it became clear that the impeachment proceedings would be unsuccessful, they were brought to a close, and no public vote on the matter was taken.

The effort to impeach Douglas and the struggles over the Fortas, Haynesworth, and Carswell nominations marked the beginning of a more partisan climate during the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominees.


During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Douglas achieved a number of records, all of which continue to stand. In addition to serving on the Court for longer than any other Justice, he also managed to write more opinions and dissenting opinions, give more speeches, and author more books than any other Justice. Douglas also holds the record among Justices for having had the most wives (four) and the most divorces while on the bench (three). The three attempts to impeach Justice Douglas were more than has been made on any other Justice.


During his time on the Supreme Court, Douglas picked up a number of nicknames, which were bestowed upon him by both his admirers and his detractors. The most common epithet was Wild Bill, which he received for his independent and unpredictable stances and cowboy-style mannerisms, although many of the latter were affectations for the consumption of the press.

Later in his career, Douglas also became known as The Great Dissenter and The Lone Ranger. The former referred to the record number of dissenting opinions that he had drafted over the course of his career, while the latter was an allusion to the number of times that his had been the lone dissenting vote in a case, which made up well over half of his estimated 300 dissenting opinions.

In Presidential Politics

When, in early 1944, President Roosevelt decided not to actively support the renomination of Vice President Henry A. Wallace at the party's national convention, a shortlist of possible replacements was drafted. The names on the list included former Senator and Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, former Senator Sherman Minton and former Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt of Indiana, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, Senator Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri, and Associate Justice Douglas.

Five days before the vice presidential nominee was to be chosen at the convention, July 15, Committee Chairman Robert E. Hannegan received a letter from Roosevelt stating that his choice for the nominee would be either "Harry Truman or Bill Douglas." After releasing the letter to the convention on July 20, the nomination went without incident, and Truman was nominated on the second ballot.

After the convention, Douglas's supporters spread the rumor that the note sent to Hannegan had, in fact, read "Bill Douglas or Harry Truman," [ [http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-60578632.html WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS "POLITICAL AMBITIONS" AND THE 1944 VICE-PRESIDENTIAL ] ] not the other way around. These supporters claimed that Hannegan, a Truman supporter, feared that Douglas's nomination would drive southern white voters away from the ticket (Douglas had a very anti-segregation record on the Supreme Court) and had switched the names to give the impression that Truman was Roosevelt's real choice. Evidence uncovered recently by Douglas's biographers, however, has discredited this story and seems to prove that Truman's name had been first all along.Fact|date=February 2007 If nominated for vice president and elected under Roosevelt, Douglas would have become the 33rd President after Roosevelt's death.

By 1948, Douglas' presidential aspirations were rekindled by the extremely low popularity ratings of Truman, who had become president in 1945 on Roosevelt's death. Many Democrats, believing that Truman could not be reelected in November, began attempting to find a replacement candidate. Attempts were made to draft popular retired war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower for the nomination. A "Draft Douglas" campaign, complete with souvenir buttons and hats, sprang up in New Hampshire and several other primary states. Douglas himself even campaigned for the nomination for a short time, but he soon withdrew his name from consideration.

In the end, Eisenhower refused to be drafted and Truman won renomination easily. Although Truman approached Douglas about the vice presidential nomination, the Justice turned him down. Douglas was later heard to remark, "I have no wish to be the number two man to a number two man." Truman instead selected Senator Alben W. Barkley and the two went on to win the election.

Going into the 1960 presidential election, Douglas supported the nomination of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson for President, because Johnson, a poker and drinking buddy through the mutual acquaintance of Johnson's personal attorney (and former Douglas employee) Abe Fortas, had promised that he would make Douglas his nominee for Vice President. After Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy won the nomination, which Douglas believed had been "bought" by Kennedy's father (another former Douglas associate), the Justice went on a week-long binge, during which he was heard to shout, "This always happens to me!"

Retirement and Family Life

On December 31, 1974, while on vacation in the Bahamas, Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke. Severely disabled, Douglas nevertheless insisted on continuing to participate in Supreme Court affairs, despite his obvious incapacity. Seven of Douglas's fellow justices voted to put off any argued case in which Douglas's vote might make a difference over to the next term. At the urging of his friend and former student Abe Fortas, Douglas finally retired on November 12, 1975, after 36 years of service.

Douglas married four times. He was married to Mildred Riddle from 1923 to 1953, Mercedes Hester Davidson from 1954 to 1963, Joan Martin from 1963 to 1965, and Cathleen Heffernan (at the time a twenty-three year old law student) from 1965 until his death, January 19, 1980. [ [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/historical_information/william_douglas.html Arlington National Cemetery, William O. Douglas.] ] His first marriage produced two children, Mildred and William O. Douglas, Jr.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. His qualifications for burial at Arlington have been the subject of controversy. [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/wdouglas.htm Arlington National Cemetery on William Douglas, including review of "Wild Bill".] ]

The William O. Douglas Wilderness, which adjoins Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, is named in his honor, as Douglas had both an intimate connection to that area and a deep commitment to environmental protection. [http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/recreation/wilderness/wilderness-william-o-douglas.shtml] Douglas Falls in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina is also named after him.


The William O. Douglas Committee, a select group of law students at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington has sponsored a series of lectures on the First Amendment since 1972, in Justice Douglas's honor. [http://www.law.gonzaga.edu/students/SBA-and-Student-Organizations/William-O.-Douglas-Committee.asp William O. Douglas Committee :: Gonzaga School of Law ] ] Douglas was the first speaker for the annual series.The honors college at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington bears Justice Douglas's name.An area of the Wenatchee National Forest east of Mount Rainier National Park is designated William O. Douglas Wilderness.A statue of William O. Douglas is in place in the courtyard of A.C. Davis High School, in Yakima, Wa.. At Whitman College, William O. Douglas Hall is a much-sought-after dormitory among second-, third-, and fourth-year students. Douglas Hall, an apartment for continuing students at Earl Warren College, at the University of California, San Diego is named for him as well.

Primary Sources

*"Go East, Young Man: The Early Years; The Autobiography of William O. Douglas" ISBN 0394711653
*"The Court Years, 1939 to 1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas"ISBN 0394492404
*"Democracy and finance;: The addresses and public statements of William O. Douglas as member and chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission" ISBN 0804605564
*"Nature's Justice: Writings of William O. Douglas" ISBN 0870714821
*"An Interview with William O. Douglas by William O. Douglas" (sound recording) ASIN B000S592XI
* [http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/douglas_william.html "The Mike Wallace Interview",] May 11, 1958 (video)
* [http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/douglas_william_t.html "The Mike Wallace Interview,] May 11, 1958 (transcript)

econdary Sources

*Frank, John P., "The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions" (Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, editors) (Chelsea House Publishers: 1995) ISBN 0791013774, ISBN 978-0791013779
*cite book|last=Murphy|first=Bruce Allen|title="Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Dougla"s|year=2003|publisher=Random House|location=New York|id=ISBN 0-394-57628-4

External links

* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=296 Grave of William O. Douglas at Find a Grave.]
* [http://www.constitution.org/wod/wod_por.htm Points of Rebellion, by William O. Douglas]


ee also

*Lucile Lomen
*List of United States Chief Justices by time in office

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