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William O. Douglas

William Orville Douglas (October 16, 1898 - January 19, 1980) was a United States Supreme Court Associate Justice.

During his tenure on the bench, Douglas achieved a number of records and distinctions. With a term lasting thirty-six years, he remains the longest-serving justice in the history of the Court. 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 these records have since been surpassed by his successors.


Early life

Douglas was born in Maine, Minnesota. His family moved to California, and then Cleveland, Washington. His father died there in 1904, when he was only six years old. His mother moved the family to Yakima, Washington.

He attended Whitman College because his mother refused to pay for him to attend Washington State University. After graduating in 1920 with a bachelors of arts in Engish and Economics, he spent 1920 and 1921 teaching school. However, he tired of this and decided to pursue a legal career.

Yale and the SEC

Douglas graduated from Columbia Law School in 1925. He first took a job with a top Wall Street law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, but quit after four months. After one year, he moved back to Yakima, but he 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. He quickly jumped to join 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.

In 1934, he left Yale to join the Securities and Exchange Commission. Here he met Franklin D. Roosevelt and became an adviser and friend to the President. In 1936, he was named chairman of the SEC.

On the bench

In 1939, Justice Louis D. Brandeis resigned from the Supreme Court, and Roosevelt nominated Douglas as his replacement. Douglas later admitted that this had been a great surprise - Roosevelt had summoned him to an "important meeting", and Douglas had expected to be named as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 62 to 4. Douglas was sworn into office on April 17, 1939.

Judicial philosophy

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), convicting the leader of the U.S. Communist Party.

Over the course of his career Douglas grew to become a leading advocate individual rights against the government generally. For example, Douglas wrote the lead opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, finding a "right to privacy" in the "penumbras" of the first ten 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, the two alleged Soviet spies 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 permissable under the Espionage Act of 1917, which the Rosenbergs were tried under, a later law, the Atomic Secrets 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, this meant that the Rosenbergs could expect to wait at least six months before the case was heard.

When Attorney General James P. McGranery heard about the stay, however, he immediately took his objection to Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who took the unprecedented step of reconvening the Supreme Court before the appointed date. On June 19, the Court ruled that the crime in question fell under the 1917 law, not the latter. The Court set aside Douglas' stay. Douglas, who had already left for vacation in Oregon, did not attend the proceedings.

Due to opposition due to his decision, Douglas briefly faced impeachment proceedings in Congress. Attempts to unseat him were unsuccessful, however, due to the fact that, at the time, the Democratic Party, of which Douglas was a member, held the majority.

Douglas and the counter-culture: Later years on the bench

During the 1960s, Douglas became a spokesman for liberal causes, writing a book published in 1969 entitled Points of Rebellion and controversially authoring a piece that appeared in Evergreen magazine, a "hippie" publication. Douglas also became a key supporter of the fledgling environmental movement, serving on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club from 1960 to 1962 and writing prolifically on his love of the outdoors. He eloquently dissented from the Supreme Court's decision in Sierra Club v. Morton denying the environmental group standing to sue. For his liberal activities, House minority leader Gerald R. Ford launched a campaign to impeach Douglas in 1970; the attempt failed, but Douglas was the target of surveillance by the Nixon Administration. Nixon and his attorney general, John N. Mitchell, attempted to obtain information on Douglas's supposedly sordid personal life in order to force Douglas from the bench. In fact, rumors of womanizing and alcoholism had dogged Douglas since his earliest days in public service.


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 faked for the consumption of the press.

Later in his career, Douglas also became known as "The Great Dissenter" and "The Lone Ranger." The former referred to the record number of dissenting opinions that he had drafted over the course of his career, while the latter was an allusion to the number of times that his had been the lone dissenting vote in a case, which made up well over half of his estimated three hundred dissenting opinions.

In presidential politics

When, in early 1944, President 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 Senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, Senator Sherman Minton of Indiana, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, Senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky, Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri, and Associate Justice Douglas.

During consideration of the various candidates, it quickly became clear that Truman and Douglas were the two front-runners for the post; Truman because of his staunch support in Congress for every part of Roosevelt's New Deal, Douglas because of the personal friendship with the president, and both men because of the staunch support they commanded from various factions of the New Deal Coalition.

On the night that the vice presidential nominee was to be chosen at the convention, 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 allowing word of the letter leaked out, the nomination went without incident, and Truman was nominated on the third ballot.

After the convention, Douglas' supporters spread the rumor that the note sent to Hannegan had, in fact, read "Bill Douglas or Harry Truman," not the other way around. These supporters claimed that Hannegan, a Truman supporter, feared that Douglas' 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' biographers, however, has discredited this story and seems to prove that Truman's name had been first all along.

By 1948, any presidential aspirations that Douglas may have had were rekindled by the extremely low popularity ratings of Truman, who had since become president upon 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. Although a "Draft Douglas" campaign sprang up in New Hampshire and several other primary states, complete with souvenir buttons and hats, and Douglas himself even campaigned for the nomination for a short time, he soon withdrew his name from consideration.

In the end, Eisenhower refused to be drafted and Truman won renomination easily. Although Truman approached Douglas about the vice presidential nomination, the Justice turned him down. Douglas was later heard to remark, "I have no wish to be the number two man to a number two man." Truman instead selected Senator Alben Barkley and the two went on to win the election in what is widely considered to be one of the greatest upset victories of all time.

Retirement and family life

On December 31, 1974, while on vacation in the Bahamas, Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke. Severely disabled, Douglas nevertheless insisted on continuing to participate in Supreme Court affairs, despite his obvious incapacity. In one of the most wrenching episodes in Supreme Court history, seven of Douglas's fellow justices voted to put any argued case in which Douglas's vote might make a difference over to the next term. At the urging of his friend and former student Abe Fortas, Douglas finally retired on November 12, 1975, after 36 years of service.

Douglas married four times. He was married to Mildred Riddle from 1923 to 1953, Mercedes Hester Davidson from 1954 to 1963, Joan Martin from 1963 to 1965, and Cathleen Hefferman (a law student many years his junior) from 1965 until his death. His first marriage produced two children, Mildred and William O. Douglas, Jr.

He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. The William O. Douglas Wilderness, which adjoins Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, is named in his honor, as Douglas had, in his youth, often visited the park with his family.


The privacy and dignity of our citizens [are] being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen -- a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of a [person's] life.

As night-fall does not come at once, neither does oppression...It is in such twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air -- however slight -- lest we become victims of the darkness.

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