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 on William Orville Douglas

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).