Douglas, William O.
DOUGLAS, WILLIAM O.
William Orville Douglas (1898–1980), Supreme Court justice, was born in Maine, Minnesota, the second of the three children of Julia Fisk and William Douglas, a Presbyterian minister. At age three, Douglas moved west with his parents, first to Estrella, California, then to Cleveland, Washington. When his father died in 1904, his mother settled with her children near relatives in Yakima, Washington.
Douglas had been crippled with polio before his family moved west, and life in Yakima was hard for his practically penniless mother and her children. Eventually, however, Douglas not only regained the use of his legs but became an inveterate mountain hiker, developing the love of nature and solitude that later characterized his lifestyle and personality. He, his sister, and his younger brother helped their mother financially with odd jobs and work in area orchards. He excelled academically, becoming valedictorian of his high school class in 1916 and a 1920 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla. After teaching English and Latin for two years at Yakima's high school, and reportedly with only $75 in his pocket, Douglas took a train east, herding a carload of sheep to pay his fare, and enrolled at Columbia Law School. Although obliged to devote much of his time to tutoring and odd jobs, he graduated second in his class.
Douglas had hoped to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone after law school. But when the clerkship went to another Columbia graduate, he reluctantly joined a prominent Wall Street firm. After two unsatisfying years there, he left private practice to teach law, first at Columbia, then at Yale, where he specialized in corporate law, became one of the school's youngest endowed chair professors, and enthusiastically embraced the legal realist movement then flourishing at Yale, including its conception of judges as social engineers.
When the Depression returned the Democrats to power in Washington and gave birth to the New Deal, Douglas, like many other prominent scholars, went to work in the Roosevelt administration. In 1936, he became a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the next year its chair. He also developed close ties with members of the Roosevelt inner circle, often joining the weekly poker games at the White House.
Ultimately, such connections paid off handsomely. Roosevelt had no opportunities to fill Supreme Court vacancies during his first term, but beginning with his appointment of Hugo Black in 1937, the president eventually was able to completely remake the Court. Black and Roosevelt's second appointee, Stanley Reed, were southerners, Felix Frankfurter, his third selection, was an easterner; and Roosevelt promised to appoint a westerner to the next vacancy on the Court.
Justice Louis Brandeis's retirement in 1939 gave the president another appointment. Although Douglas had spent his youth on the west coast, Roosevelt considered the SEC chairman an easterner from Yale. The depth of Douglas's commitment to the New Deal and rigorous regulation of the stock market was questionable as well. But a Douglas speech applauding New Deal programs and attacking financial interests helped to calm such concerns, and in late March, the president submitted Douglas's name to the Senate. In early April, the Senate confirmed the nomination 62–4; those voting no, all Republicans, complained, ironically, that Douglas was a tool of Wall Street.
As a member of the Court, Douglas enthusiastically joined the justices in completing the dismantling of the pre-1937 Court's laissez-faire economic precedents. Indeed, his opinion for the Court in Olsen v. Nebraska (1941) remains a classic Roosevelt Court repudiation of the Old Court's assumption of superlegislative powers in regulatory cases. Albeit with a number of lapses, most notably his stance in Korematsu v. United States (1944) and in other World War II cases involving sanctions against Japanese Americans, Douglas was also a leader in the modern Court's increasing scrutiny of laws restricting First Amendment freedoms, the rights of suspects and defendants in criminal cases, and racial equality.
Unlike his frequent ally Justice Black, however, Douglas did not rest his jurisprudence on a positivist framework, championing only those individual liberties and other restrictions on governmental authority that are rooted in constitutional language or evidence of the framers' intent. Instead, he ultimately rejected the laissez-faire Court's decisions as simply inconsistent with society's needs, while readily embracing the modern Court's use of due process and equal protection in recognizing sexual privacy, abortion, and related rights that have no basis in the Constitution's text or records of historical intent.
Justice Douglas's expansive reading of civil liberties infuriated conservative politicians. His unorthodox personal life attracted controversy as well. In the early 1950s, he divorced his wife of nearly thirty years. He later remarried three times, on the last occasion to a twenty-six-year-old when he was sixty-six. A 1970 impeachment effort—ostensibly directed at ethical improprieties but more likely at Douglas's judicial record—failed. A severe stroke in 1975 forced his retirement, but not before he had served thirty-six and a half years on the high bench, the record to date for Supreme Court service. Before his death in 1980, Congress recognized the veteran justice's love of hiking and nature by designating parkland along a favorite Washington walking trail as the William O. Douglas National Park.
Ball, Howard, and Phillip J. Cooper. Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America's Constitutional Revolution. 1992.
Countryman, Vern. The Judicial Record of Justice William O. Douglas. 1974.
Douglas, William O. The Court Years, 1939–75: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas. 1980.
Douglas, William O. Go East, Young Man, The Early Years: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas. 1974.
Simon, James F. Independent Journey: The Life of William O. Douglas. 1980.
Urofsky, Melvin, and P. E. Urofsky, eds. The Douglas Letters: Selections from the Private Papers of Justice William O. Douglas. 1987.
Wasby, Stephen L., ed. He Shall Not Pass This Way Again: The Legacy of Justice William O. Douglas. 1990.
Tinsley E. Yarbrough