William Orville Douglas was an American jurist and politician who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Douglas was confirmed at the age of 40, one of the youngest justices appointed to the court. His term, lasting 36 years and 209 days (1939–75), is the longest term in the history of the Supreme Court.
William Orville Douglas was born on October 16, 1898, in Maine, Minnesota, the son of William Douglas, a Presbyterian minister, and Julia Bickford Fisk Douglas. He grew up in Yakima, Washington, where his father moved the family after William’s birth and where the Reverend Douglas’s death in 1904 left them penniless. Added to grinding poverty, William Douglas grew up battling the effects of the polio he had contracted when he was three years old, which had almost killed him. But his homegrown rehabilitation program included hiking in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and his encounters with the wilderness in these excursions would inspire in him a lifelong devotion to the outdoors that would fuel his commitment to environmental causes decades later.
After graduating first in his class from Yakima High School in 1916, Douglas obtained a scholarship to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, from which he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920. He followed college with two years of work as a high school teacher in his hometown before he finally headed east and enrolled in Columbia Law School. There he plunged into the study of law—and a variety of part-time jobs to finance that study—and graduated second in his class in 1925. After law school Douglas practiced corporate law for two years with the Cravath firm in New York City before briefly attempting to establish his own small-town practice in Yakima.
In 1927 Columbia Law School invited him to join its faculty and he returned to New York. The following year he had internal dispute over the choice of a new dean for the law school saw many faculty leave, including Douglas, who migrated to Yale Law School. Within a short time, Douglas had been appointed to a prestigious endowed chair at Yale, where he taught corporate and bankruptcy law. In 1934 Douglas took a temporary leave of absence from Yale to work for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), one of the New Deal’s creations. As it turned out, the talented young professor never returned to academia. What he had expected to be a semester away from Yale stretched into two years, at the end of which, Joseph P. Kennedy, then SEC chairman, secured Douglas’s appointment as a commissioner of the SEC in 1936. A year and a half later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Douglas the SEC chairman. The former law professor soon became a regular at the president’s poker parties and an informal adviser to Roosevelt on economic matters.
William Douglas’s growing prominence had not escaped the notice of Yale, and at the beginning of 1939 he was offered the post of dean of the law school. Justice Louis Brandeis retired, however, in February 1939, and the president immediately announced his intention to appoint a justice from the West Coast. Douglas, in spite of his more recent career as an Ivy League scholar, lobbied aggressively for the position, and on March 19 President Roosevelt appointed him to Brandeis’s seat. The Senate confirmed his nomination by a vote of 62-4, with the dissenters suggesting ludicrously that Douglas was a Wall Street lackey. On April 17, 1939, at the age of 41 Douglas became one of the youngest justices ever to sit on die Court, beginning a career as an associate justice that would eventually be the longest ever served.
For conservatives, especially, Douglas’s activism both on and off the Court became a lightning rod for those opposed to the general activism of the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. In the end, it also earned him the privilege of defending himself against an impeachment attempt launched in 1970 by House Republican leader Gerald Ford. By the end of the year, the House Judiciary Committee had ruled against impeachment. Nevertheless, four years after surviving this political assault Douglas was felled by a different adversary. On the last day of 1974, he suffered a stroke from which he never fullv recovered and which finally forced his retirement on November 12, 1975.
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.
Member of law faculty, Columbia, 1925-1928, Yale, 1928-1934. Served as private United States Army, 1918. Member Royal Geography Society (London), Phi Beta Kappa, Beta Theta Pi, Phi Alpha Delta, Delta Sigma Rho.
Mason.; Clubs: Himalayan (Delhi, India).
Married Mildred Riddle, August 16, 1923.; married second, Mercedes Hester, December 14, 1954 (divorced 1963).; married 4th, Cathleen Heffernan, July, 1966.