William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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William Orville Douglas

Death: January 19, 1980 (81)
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Son of William Douglas and Julia Bickford Douglas

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About William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


William Orville Douglas (October 16, 1898 – January 19, 1980) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. With a term lasting 36 years and 209 days, he is the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court. In 1975, a TIME article called Douglas "the most doctrinaire and committed civil libertarian ever to sit on the court." He was replaced on the Court by John Paul Stevens, and the combination of the tenure of the two justices on the Court stretched 71 years, a seat held longer by two justices than any other.

During that time, he also established the records for the most opinions written, the most dissents written, the most speeches given, and the most books authored by any member of the Supreme Court. None of his successors has surpassed these records.

Early life

Douglas was born in Maine Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, the son of an itinerant Scottish Presbyterian minister from Pictou County, Nova Scotia. His family moved to California, and then to Cleveland, Washington. His father died in Portland, Oregon, in 1904, when Douglas 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 earn a scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

While at Whitman, Douglas became 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.

Douglas was elected Phi Beta Kappa, participated on the debate team, 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 traveled 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.

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 Law School. He later joined 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 Antonin Dvořák's Humoresque #7, 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), having been nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became an adviser and friend to the President and SEC chairman in 1937.

During this time, Douglas became friends with a group of young New Dealers including Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran and Abe Fortas; this social/political group befriended a freshman Congressman from the 10th District of Texas: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro, in his book "Years of Lyndon Johnson: Path to Power", states that, in 1937, Douglas helped persuade President Roosevelt to authorize a controversial dam, the Marshall Ford Dam, that was a key to Johnson cementing his power as a congressman. (461)

On the bench

In 1939, Justice Louis D. Brandeis resigned from the Supreme Court, and Roosevelt nominated Douglas as his replacement on March 20.[10] 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 United States Senate on April 4 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. At the age of forty, Douglas was one of the youngest justices to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Relationships with other justices

Douglas was often at odds with fellow Justice Felix Frankfurter, who believed in judicial restraint and thought the Court should stay out of politics. Douglas did not highly value judicial consistency or stare decisis when deciding cases.

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 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...."

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, 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 Energy 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, it 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. Because of opposition to his decision, Douglas briefly faced impeachment proceedings in Congress, but attempts to remove him from the Court went nowhere.

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 his dissenting opinion 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. In the early 1970s, Douglas and his wife Cathleen were invited by Neil Compton and the Ozark Society to visit and canoe down part of the free-flowing Buffalo River in Arkansas, putting in at the low water bridge at Boxley. This experience endeared him to the river and the young organization's idea of protecting it. As such Douglas was instrumental in having it preserved as a free-flowing river, left in its natural state. This decision was much to the chagrin of the area's Corps of Army Engineers. The act that soon followed designated the Buffalo river as America's first National River.


Douglas's review contributed to the success of Silent Spring, an important turning point for 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's plan to pave the canal into a road. 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 when a proposal to build a dam and flood the gorge reached the Court. Douglas visited the area himself on November 18, 1967. The Red River Gorge's Douglas Trail is named in his honor.

In 1969 he wrote Points of Rebellion and authored a piece for Evergreen magazine. Two years later, Justice Douglas helped launch the nation's first law review dedicated solely to environmental issues by publishing a paper in Lewis & Clark Law School's new law review, Environmental Law.

In presidential politics

When, in early 1944, President Franklin D. 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 (and future Supreme Court justice) 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 Douglas.

Five days before the vice presidential nominee was to be chosen at the convention, on 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,"[19] 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 was first all along.[citation needed] If nominated for vice president and elected under Roosevelt, Douglas would have become the 33rd President after Roosevelt's death.

By 1948, Douglas's presidential aspirations were rekindled by the extremely low popularity 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 nomination easily. Although Truman approached Douglas about the vice presidential nomination, the Justice turned him down. Douglas's close associate Tommy Corcoran was later heard to ask, "Why be a number two man to a number two man?" Truman instead selected Senator Alben W. Barkley and the two went on to win the election.

Impeachment attempts

There were two attempts to remove Douglas from office, both unsuccessful.

Rosenberg case

On June 17, 1953, Representative William M. Wheeler, infuriated by Douglas's brief stay of execution in the Rosenberg case, introduced a resolution to impeach Justice Douglas. The resolution was referred to the Judiciary Committee to investigate the charges the next day. On July 7, the committee voted to end the investigation.

Parvin Foundation

Justice Douglas maintained a busy speaking and publishing schedule to supplement his income. He became severely burdened financially due to a bitter divorce and settlement with his first wife, and only sank deeper into financial difficulties as settlements with his second and third wives consumed much of his salary as an Associate Justice.

Douglas's steps to supplement his income included the unusual move of becoming president of the Parvin Foundation. 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,[citation needed] Representative Ford was also mindful that Douglas protégé Abe Fortas was forced to resign because of ties to a foundation similar to the Parvin. Fortas would later say that he "resigned to save Douglas," thinking that the dual investigations into them would stop with his resignation.

Some scholars have argued that Ford's impeachment attempt was politically motivated. 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 notwithstanding), 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 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's 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?"

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 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).


Since his 1970 impeachment hearings, Douglas had wanted to retire from the Court. He wrote to his friend and former student Abe Fortas: "My ideas are way out of line with current trends, and I see no particular point in staying around and being obnoxious."

On December 31, 1974, while on vacation in the Bahamas, Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke in his right brain hemisphere, leaving him paralyzed in his left leg and became a wheelchair user. 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 Fortas, Douglas finally retired on November 12, 1975, after 36 years of service. Ironically, it was Douglas's old nemesis, now-President Gerald Ford, to whom he had to submit his resignation and who appointed his successor, John Paul Stevens.

However, according to Woodward and Armstrong, Douglas refused to accept his own decision to retire, and attempted to continue participating in the Court's cases well into 1976, after Stevens had taken his seat. Douglas reacted with outrage when returning to his old chambers to discover that his clerks had been reassigned to Stevens, and attempted to file opinions in cases whose arguments he had heard before his retirement. Burger ordered all Justices, clerks, and other staffers to refuse to assist Douglas in these efforts, and when Douglas attempted in March 1976 to hear arguments in a capital punishment case (Gregg v. Georgia), the nine sitting Justices signed a formal letter informing him that his retirement had ended his official duties on the Court. It was only then that Douglas stopped attempting to participate in Supreme Court business. His behavior has been attributed to the condition called anosognosia following his stroke, a neuropsychological presentation in which the affected person is unaware and unable to acknowledge disease in himself. It also often results in defects in reasoning, decision making, emotions, and feeling.


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.

Personal life

Douglas married Mildred Riddle, a teacher at North Yakima High School, on August 16, 1923. They had two children, Mildred and William, Jr. William played Gerald Zinser in PT 109. Mildred divorced Douglas on July 20, 1953.

On December 14, 1954, he married Mercedes Davidson, whom he had been seeing while married to Mildred.

He married Joan Martin, a 23-year-old law student, on August 5, 1963, five days after his divorce from Mercedes was finalized.

He married Cathleen Heffernan, a 22-year old college student, on July 15, 1966, two weeks after his divorce from Joan was finalized. They remained together until his death.

Douglas's marriages and his alleged womanizing were a matter of controversy. In 1966, Robert Dole compared his "bad judgment from a matrimonial standpoint" to his court decisions, and four separate resolutions were introduced in the United States House of Representatives calling for investigation of his moral character.

Douglas is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.[36][37] His qualification for burial at Arlington – whether he had served in the military – has been the subject of controversy.[38]

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.[39] Douglas was a friend and frequent guest of Harry Randall Truman, owner of the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake in Washington. Douglas Falls in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina is also named after him, as is the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom in Beverly Hills, California.


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 Douglas's honor.[40] Douglas was the first speaker for the annual series.[40] The honors college at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington bears Douglas's name.

A statue of Douglas is in place in the courtyard of A.C. Davis High School, in Yakima, Washington. Also at Yakima, the William O. Douglas Federal Building was named for him in 1978. At Douglas's alma mater, 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.

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