When William O. Douglas joined the Court, he brought with him the typical New Deal support for government attempts to regulate the economy and general enthusiasm for civil rights and civil liberties, as long as these were balanced with a due respect for the needs of society. Like Hugo Black, Douglas had been appointed by a president he respected deeply, and loyalty to that president cast him in a role of support for the government—a role that he would later abandon. For example, both he and Black voted initially with the majority of the Court in
Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), which refused to exempt Jehovah’s Witness children from a compulsory flag-salute statute, even though the Witnesses believed the salute to be idolatrous. Both justices eventually regretted this decision and joined a new majority that overruled Gobitis in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). The following year, though, in Korematsu v. United States (1944), the exigencies of war persuaded them to uphold the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and their forced relocation to internment camps. That same year, Douglas was named as a possible running mate for Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign, but Harry Truman won the second spot on the Democratic ticket—and eventually the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in 1945.
With the end of the world war and the death of Roosevelt, Douglas steadily gravitated toward the aggressive civil libertarian stance that would characterize his remaining judicial career. Even before this period, when conditions of war did not present themselves, Douglas had shown himself prepared to defend the rights of minorities and outcasts. Thus, for example, in Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), he had written die Court’s opinion declaring unconstitutional a forced sterilization program for repeat criminal offenders. By the cold war era, his defense of civil rights and liberties began to take on an absolutist character. In Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), he defended the right of a speaker to prod a mob with angry words, suggesting that speech was often most valuable when it made people most angry. With Justice Black, he dissented from the majority decision in Dennis v. United States (1951), upholding the convictions of Communist speakers for advocating the violent overthrow of the United States.
Eventually Douglas’s absolutism led him down constitutional paths that even Hugo Black was not prepared to follow, especially when Douglas began to speak for the majority in cases protecting rights not specially safeguarded by the Constitution. In the most famous of these, Grisu’old v. Connecticut (1963), Douglas found a right of privacy implicit within the “penumbras” of various provisions of the Bill of Rights. He determined that this right had been abridged by a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. Three years later, in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966), Douglas again declared the existence of a fundamental right to vote in state elections that was unconstitutionally infringed on by a poll tax. Black, quite willing to pursue absolutism with respect to rights specifically named by die Constitution, was unwilling to join Douglas in these decisions protecting unenumerated rights.
Party affiliation: Democratic Party