Douglas, William Orville

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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William Orville Douglas, a legal educator, NEW DEAL reformer, environmental advocate, and prolific author, was an outspoken and controversial associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court during much of the twentieth century. For over 36 years, under six presidents and five chief justices, Douglas's opinions?including an unequaled 531 dissents?touched and shaped the momentous constitutional questions and crises of the Depression, WORLD WAR II, the COLD WAR, the KOREAN WAR, the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, the VIETNAM WAR, the rise of the WELFARE state, and the fall of RICHARD M. NIXON.

Asserting that the purpose of the Constitution is to "keep the government off the backs of the people," Douglas became a champion of civil liberties on the high court in seminal cases interpreting FREEDOM OF SPEECH, privacy, PORNOGRAPHY, TREASON, the rights of the accused, the limits of the military, the limits of Congress, and even the limits of the President of the United States. As an outspoken New Deal reformer and a popular libertarian, he was courted by the DEMOCRATIC PARTY for high political office, and likewise excoriated by leading Republicans who three times tried to impeach him. A man of enormous energy, he did not confine his public views to opinions from the U.S. Supreme Court alone, but wrote over thirty books on a variety of legal and social topics. As an engaging storyteller, vigorous outdoorsman, and blunt social critic, he was irresistible to the liberal press, under whose influence he was named Father of the Year in 1950. At his death in 1980, he was lionized as an outstanding protector of freedoms.

Since his death, however, historians have criticized both his public career and his private life. From his position on the U.S. Supreme Court, he twice flirted with a place on the presidential ticket?with FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT in 1944 and with HARRY S. TRUMAN in 1948?despite the clear opposition of his Court colleagues. He wrote his opinions faster, and with less scholarship or collegial cooperation, than any of his fellow justices. His lifelong stream of books, which referred to him as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on their covers, showed a similar haste to regard primarily his own views as he exhorted the nation impatiently on foreign policy, anthropology, religion, history, law, economics, and the environment. Unprecedented for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, he advocated public issues in extralegal activities around the world, creating difficulties for both the Court and the federal government at large. He claimed that J. EDGAR HOOVER had bugged the inner conference room of the Supreme Court Building and that Hoover had had FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) agents plant marijuana on his mountain retreat property in Goose Prairie, Washington; when no evidence of these activities was ever found, he refused to recant. When a stroke at age 75 left him paralyzed in a wheelchair, wracked with pain, and periodically incoherent, he nonetheless refused to resign his seat in the high court until forced to do so through the extraordinary efforts of his colleagues. And even then, he insisted on lingering in his judicial office for months, demanding attention as though he were still on the Court.

"THE FIFTH AMENDMENT IS AN OLD FRIEND AND A GOOD FRIEND ? ONE OF THE GREAT LANDMARKS IN MAN'S STRUGGLE TO BE FREE OF TYRANNY, TO BE DECENT AND CIVILIZED."

?WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS

This brilliant and complex man was born October 16, 1898, in Maine, Minnesota. He grew up in small towns of rural Minnesota, California, and Washington as his family moved in search of a climate that would preserve the frail health of his father, a hardworking Presbyterian

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William O. Douglas.

PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRIS & EWING. COLLECTION OF U.S. SUPREME COURT

minister of Scottish pioneer ancestry. Douglas's father died in Washington when the boy was five, leaving the family with only a meager inheritance, which a local attorney immediately squandered on a foolish investment. Douglas's widowed mother, Julia Bickford Fiske Douglas, had saved just enough to buy a house for the family in Yakima (WA), across the street from the elementary school, where she raised Douglas and his two siblings on the virtues of hard work and high ambition as preparation for success in life. All three of the children achieved success in school and in professional life, but William was brilliant: valedictorian of his high school class, Phi Beta Kappa at Whitman College, and second in his class and on the law review...

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