Douglas, William Orville

views updated May 14 2018


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

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 at Columbia Law School.

Polio had stricken Douglas when he was an infant, and the local doctor had advised the family that he would never fully recover the use of his legs and that he probably would be dead by age 40. His mother, who had favored her first-born with the name Treasure, went to work massaging the muscles of his legs vigorously in two-hour shifts around the clock for months, telling him that he would recover to run again "like the wind," the way she had as a girl. He not only recovered the use of his legs but, as an adolescent, put himself on a merciless discipline of hiking miles a day in the mountains under full pack, to strengthen his legs to the point of outstanding endurance, determined that no one would ever call him puny.

In 1920, he graduated from Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington, and returned home for two years to teach English, Latin, and public speaking in Yakima High School. He pursued a Rhodes Scholarship unsuccessfully, and then decided to hitchhike by rail across the country to enter Columbia Law School, although he did not yet possess the money for tuition. While in law school, in 1924, he married Mildred Riddle, with whom he had his only two children, Millie Douglas and William O. Douglas Jr. The marriage ended in divorce 29 years later.

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1925, he practiced in a Wall Street firm for one year before joining the faculty at Columbia. A year later, he went to teach at Yale, where he specialized in corporate law and finance, writing respected casebooks and gaining recognition as an expert in those fields. Desperate for a cure for the continuous headaches and stomach pains

that had plagued him since his days on Wall Street, he briefly undertook psychoanalysis at Yale.

Following the stock market crash of 1929, Douglas did original and painstaking work with the help of sociologist Dorothy S. Thomas, interviewing failed businesses in bankruptcy court to determine the causes of their loss. He was asked to head a study committee of the securities and exchange commission (SEC) in 1934. In 1936 he became a member of the SEC, and in 1937 he was appointed chairman with the mandate from Franklin D. Roosevelt to reform practices of the stock exchange that had led to the great crash.

In 1939, Roosevelt had Douglas, then chairman of the SEC, hailed off a golf course to meet immediately with him at the White House. "I have a new job for you," the president said in the Oval Office. "It's a job you'll detest." Pausing dramatically to light up a cigarette, the president continued, "I am sending your name to the Senate as Louis Brandeis' successor." Douglas was stunned. At age 40, he was about to become the second-youngest U.S. Supreme Court justice in history.

Douglas was sworn in on April 17, 1939, and quickly helped to constitute a new majority on the Court that supported Roosevelt's New Deal laws regulating the economy. Within two years, he had opposed the Court's leading personality, felix frankfurter, and its reigning philosophy of defending civil liberties from the bill of rights in cases involving religious freedom and the rights of the accused. It was the beginning of a two-decade battle with Frankfurter and his philosophy of judicial restraint. This conflict did not end amicably, but it helped to transform Douglas into a champion of civil liberties. After World War II, Douglas joined forces frequently with Justice hugo l. black and later Justice william j. brennan jr. in applying the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties.

In 1951, when fears of communism exacerbated by the public ravings of Senator joseph r. mccarthy overtook the nation, Douglas's dissent in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951), defended the first amendment free speech rights of Eugene Dennis and ten other members of the American Communist Party who admitted teaching the works of karl marx, Friedrich Engels, vladimir lenin, and joseph stalin. Douglas argued that despite current fears of communist influence in U.S. society, their speech alone presented no clear and present danger to the nation. Similarly, in dissent, he defended the First Amendment rights of several New York schoolteachers who had challenged the state's Feinberg law (Educ. Law N.Y.S. 3022) giving authorities the right to compile a list of subversive organizations to which a teacher could not belong. Douglas wrote that teachers need the guarantee of free expression more than anyone and that the Feinberg Law "turned the school system into a spying project" (Alder v. Board of Education of City of New York, 342 U.S. 485, 72 S. Ct. 380, 96 L. Ed. 517 [1952]).

During this same period, he vigorously opposed the expanding use of government wire tapping enabled by the 1929 decision in olmstead v. united states, 277 U.S. 438, 48 S. Ct. 564, 72 L. Ed. 944 (1928). Writing for the public in his book Almanac of Freedom (1954), Douglas declared that "wire tapping, wherever used, has a black record. The invasion of privacy is ominous. It is dragnet in character, recording everything that is said, by the innocent as well as by the guilty….wire tapping is a blight on the civil liberties of the citizen."

In 1953, Douglas single-handedly halted the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the defendants in the most sensational spy trial of the cold war (Rosenberg v. United States, 346 U.S. 273, 73 S. Ct. 1173, 97 L. Ed. 1607 [1953]). After voting four times not to hear the case, he finally ordered a stay at the last possible minute, and then headed off on vacation. Unable to reach Douglas en route, the other justices called a special session to vacate the stay, and the Rosenbergs were executed. Douglas's colleagues accused him of grandstanding. His enemies in Congress accused him of treason, and he survived three impeachment attempts led by gerald r. ford. Ford, eager to be rid of Douglas, declared that "an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history." However, Douglas was not a traitor but an adamant civil libertarian, unwilling to let the heavy hand of the government crush any individual's rights.

During the tenure of Chief Justice earl warren (1953–69), Douglas found more frequent majorities for his activist philosophy. He took a leading role in reaching a majority for the 1954 Brown decision (brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 [1954]) desegregating public schools, telling his colleagues simply that "a state can't classify by color in education." He argued in dissent in several cases that the Bill of Rights was applicable to the states through the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment, an argument that the Court finally accepted in mapp v. ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961), which held the fourth amendment provision prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures applicable to the states. He supported each of the Warren Court's major decisions extending the rights of criminal suspects, including the right to counsel, in gideon v. wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S. Ct. 792, 9 L. Ed. 2d 799 (1963), and the right to be advised of one's constitutional rights before being interrogated, in miranda v. arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966).

In 1965, Douglas wrote for the majority in griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510, striking down a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. In the opinion, he argued that, taken together, the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments created a constitutional right to privacy. This may have been Douglas's most influential single opinion on the Court. He argued that the government did not belong in the bedroom, which was one of the "zones of privacy" protected by "penumbras" emanating from the specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights. Criticism of the Griswold opinion was fierce. But based on this right to privacy, a majority of the Court, Douglas concurring, would vote for a woman's right to have an abortion in roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973).

Douglas made no secret of his long-standing dislike for the Vietnam War. In the fall of 1967, he dissented from the Court's decision not to review several cases that might have raised the issue of the legality of the Vietnam War. On August 4, 1973, in a solitary performance reminiscent of the Rosenberg stay of execution, acting from the Yakima courthouse near his summer vacation home, Douglas reinstated a lower-court order to stop the Nixon administration's bombing of Cambodia and, in effect, bring the Vietnam War to a halt by judicial decision. Douglas wrote that only Congress could declare war, and Congress had not done so. Six hours later, eight members of the Court reversed him by the telephone polling of Justice thur-good marshall.

In his most personal relationships, Douglas was a tyrant. He sternly demanded the back-breaking 16-hour days and six-day weeks from his law clerks that he loved to put in himself (when a clerk asked for time off to get married, Douglas granted him 24 hours' leave), but never allowed them significant responsibilities for his opinions. One clerk said, "It was a master/slave relationship" (Simon 1980). He married four times while serving on the Supreme Court, to successively younger women: after Riddle, Mercedes Davidson (1953), whom he met in Washington, D.C.; Joan Martin (1962), a twenty-three-year-old college student who had written her senior thesis in praise of him; and Catherine Heffermin (1965), a twenty-one-year-old college student whom he met while she was working as a waitress. Most of his wives found him distant, demanding, and faithless. The 860 pages of his two-volume autobiography (The Court Years, 1980) are filled with words of revenge upon his personal and political enemies but contain less than a page for his wife of 29 years, Riddle. He was so inept and cold as a father that his two children fled him. As his son put it, "Father was scary."

Felled by a stroke in 1974, Douglas became confined to a wheelchair pushed by an aide, wracked by constant pain, glazed by medication, and increasingly incoherent. But he would not resign. He tried to return to the Court in 1975, refusing all advice to the contrary. His presence was embarrassing to the Court and impossible to sustain. He officially resigned on November 12, 1975, but tried to hang on to an unofficial role as the Court's tenth justice. When even his clerks would not support his fantasy, he prepared a statement of farewell to be read to the justices on his behalf while he sat in his wheelchair. His farewell compared the relationship he had shared with his Court colleagues to the slow warm growth of friendships on a camping trip in the wilderness. His colleagues wept.

Douglas died on January 19, 1980, in Washington, D.C.

Douglas had shattered the popular view of the high court as a somber gathering of elderly people in black robes pondering the weighty truths of the Constitution. His irrepressible personality, extralegal activities, popular book writing, and serial marriages brought unprecedented color and controversy to the Court. A libertarian by disposition and principle, he would not easily allow the government to abridge the liberties of others, nor would he conform to the traditional role of U.S. Supreme Court justice.

further readings

Douglas, William O. 1980. The Court Years: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House.

——. 1974. Go East, Young Man. New York: Random House.

——. 1954. Almanac of Freedom.

Murphy, Bruce Allen. 2003. Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House.

Simon, James F. 1980. Independent Journey: The Life of William O. Douglas. New York: Harper & Row.

Woodward, Bob, and Scott Armstrong. 1979. The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Communist Party Cases; Rosenbergs Trial.

William Orville Douglas

views updated May 21 2018

William Orville Douglas

William Orville Douglas (1898-1980) was one of the most liberal and activist justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and a vigorous and controversial writer.

William Orville Douglas was born on October 16, 1898, in Maine, Minnesota, where his father, a Nova Scotian missionary, had moved as an itinerant preacher. At the age of 4 William was stricken with polio; to strengthen his spindly legs he began the hiking and later the mountain climbing that became one of his characteristic signatures. When he was 6 his father died, leaving his mother and the three children to make their way on very little, so they moved in with relatives in Yakima, Washington. There William and his two siblings worked their respective ways through school in odd chores and farming jobs. William got a scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and upon graduating spent 2 years teaching English and Latin in his hometown high school.

But Douglas's aim was the law. He arrived at Columbia University Law School in 1922 almost penniless, and had to once again work his way through school doing tutoring and research for a law textbook. He was befriended by Dean Harlan Stone and deeply influenced by Professor Underhill Moore, who had a new approach to the legal sociology of corporate business, which became Douglas' focus while at Columbia. This was also the period of the creative jurisprudence on the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and this "People's Attorney" and iconoclastic judge became one of Douglas's heroes. After graduating second highest in his class and editor of Columbia's law journal, Douglas worked for Cravath, DeGersdorff, Swaine & Wood, a huge Wall Street law firm in 1925, and practiced for a year in Yakima. He was admitted to the bar in 1926. He joined the faculty at Columbia Law School in 1927 but resigned in protest against the appointment of a new dean without faculty consultation a year later. A chance meeting with Dean Robert M. Hutchins of the Yale Law School led to Douglas's appointment to a professorship there at the age of 32, and just over a year later he was made Sterling Professor of Law.

Douglas's life was transformed by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, with its sense of social urgency and unparalleled opportunity for reform. In 1934 the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission asked the young law professor for a memorandum on the abuses of corporate reorganization and how these could be remedied. Douglas's reply was an eight-volume report that led to his appointment in 1936 as a member of the Commission and in 1937 he became its chairman. He prodded the stock exchanges into reorganizing themselves and also developed the Commission's surveillance of the prospectuses for new security issues, which did much to stabilize the exchanges.

When Justice Brandeis retired from the Commission, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to Douglas, despite his youth. Justice Douglas took his seat on April 17, 1939. There was talk of Douglas's resigning for high political office on two occasions during the intervening years. One time was in 1944, when Roosevelt sent two names to the Democratic Convention managers as his preferences for vice-presidential running mate—Douglas and Harry Truman. The choice fell to Truman, partly because political moguls mistrusted Douglas just as business moguls did. The second occasion was in 1948, when President Truman, needing a strong, liberal running mate, offered the place to Douglas, who turned it down.

As a justice, Douglas was one of the hardcore liberal "activists," in the sense that he believed that judicial neutrality was a myth and that judges could not rely on constitutional precedent or hard-and-fast constitutional texts to give them the judicial answers. Douglas believed that judicial statesmanship must keep up with social change and that a judge has the duty actively to shape the law in the desired social direction. Placed for a time in a dissenting minority with Justice Hugo Black, he later found himself part of a liberal majority, as Roosevelt's appointees gradually took over the Court. He went on the defensive again in the conservative Frederick Vinson court of the cold war period but again was part of the liberal majority of the Earl Warren court.

Douglas took a strong role in desegregation cases, in the assurance of fair governmental procedures for the accused, in the freedom of religion cases, and in the cases concerning the right of access to birth-control information. In the obscenity cases he took a firm stand for the absolute freedoms guaranteed against censorship of any sort by the 1st Amendment, which to some made him a proponent of smut and "un-American" values.

Douglas's continuous record of militant judicial liberalism was bound to awaken hostility. There were rumblings about impeaching Douglas when he granted a brief stay of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of spying on American atomic bomb technology. Anti-Douglas sentiments were fed by his three divorces and by his judicial opinions in religion-in-the-schools and obscenity cases. To a growing number of people he had offended God, the home, and the purity of the printed word. His book, Points of Revolution (1970), compared the current American Establishment with George III's, saying that unless it accepted the pressures for nonviolent revolutionary change, it would be overthrown by violence; this also stirred ire.

The impeachment movement this time gained considerable strength in the House of Representatives, fed mainly by tensions of the era and partisan politics, and a committee looking into his affairs was formed. Gerald Ford, while still in Congress, was the leading voice against Douglas. The impeachment-mongerers had their opening in Douglas's association with the Parvin fund, whose purposes were impeccable but whose money, it turned out, came from sources tainted with gambling. He collected a small fee that, despite being negligible, he still paid income taxes on, which his attackers claimed caused a conflict of interest, despite many of the other justices and government officials having received similar compensations. The impeachment attempts were all inconclusive, but persisted until Douglas retired from the Court in 1975.

An indomitable traveler, naturalist, mountain climber, lecturer, and writer, as well as teacher, administrator, and judge, Douglas reasserted the possibility of a many-faceted Renaissance existence as against a specialized, limited life. His career covered 4 decades of stormy American experience, from the early New Deal days to the tensions of the Vietnam War and the student confrontations of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He brought to these years of turmoil legal and financial skills, a passion for individual freedom, and a plain-spoken brusqueness. He will be remembered as one of the few public figures who dared challenge convention and the Establishment during the middle of the 20th century. He died on January 19, 1980.

Further Reading

William Douglas wrote multiple books, though they are more centered around either law, political philosophy, or nature than himself. However, he did write a few autobiographies, including Go East, Young Man: The Early Years (1974) and The Court Years (1980). A biographical sketch and a selection of Douglas's judicial opinions are in Vern Countryman, ed., Douglas of the Supreme Court: A Selection of His Opinions (1959). Douglas and the Supreme Court are also discussed in John Paul Frank, The Warren Court (1964); Leo Pfeffer, This Honorable Court: A History of the United States Supreme Court (1965); and Henry Julian Abraham, Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States (1967). See also the chapter "William O. Douglas: Diogenes on Wall Street" in Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1939). □

About this article

William Orville Douglas

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic