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Justice William O. Douglas: Horatio Alger of the Supreme Court

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

William O. Douglas, the longest serving Supreme Court Justice in American history (1939-1975), whose outsized life on and off the bench required two autobiographical volumes, inspired devoted followers and passionate detractors, was at the center of the Court’s most important 20th Century rulings. President Franklin D. Roosevelt might have expected as much when he nominated Douglas, just 40 years old, to replace Justice Louis Brandeis, who was forced by a heart attack to leave the Judicial Palace. At the time of his appointment, Douglas had been an eminent law professor at Columbia and Yale and was at the forefront of important national reforms in the world of law, business, regulation and the Security and Exchange Commission, which he served as its third chairman.

Roosevelt had eminently good reasons for naming Douglas to the Court. Once seated, Douglas proceeded to influence the direction of the Court for the next 36 years. Anyone serving for so many years in a period that ran from FDR and on the heels of the Great Depression, through difficult challenges and cases in the Second World War, through leadership in battling racism and promoting the sea changes in equal protection, the trauma of McCarthyism, and the tumult of the Vietnam War and the 1960s, into the battles for press freedom and Nixon Presidency, is bound to stir controversy. Douglas did.

To his legion of supporters, Douglas was a Justice committed to democracy and individual liberty, to a galaxy of freedoms—speech, press and privacy—that defined a free people and a free nation. A true believer in democracy, Douglas perceived freedom of speech as “the glory of our government.” He was profoundly committed to the right of the people to hear all the evidence before selecting our nation’s leaders. As his career progressed, Justice Douglas came to embrace a Jeffersonian theory of natural rights. He wrote, “The rights of men are inalienable.” They inhere, he wrote, “because of the divine spark in every human being.”

To his detractors, Douglas was a judicial activist who shunned the duty of craftsmanship and close reasoning in writing opinions. His opinions, they said, resembled hastily written notes on cocktail napkins, reflective of his desire to move to the next project, whether it was a lecture, a book or national and international travel. He was a maverick and led an unconventional lifestyle, marrying his fourth wife when he was 66 and she was 22. In April,1970, President Richard Nixon persuaded then House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, to commence impeachment proceedings against Douglas, the first Justice since Samuel Chase in 1804 to be threatened with removal. The effort against Douglas was defeated in the House Judiciary Committee.

What is most fascinating about William O. Douglas was the fact that he was the Court’s Horatio Alger. As such, his meteoric rise from poverty and illness, to elevated stations in the politics, jurisprudence and life of the nation, punctuated by his appointment to the High Bench at the tender age of 40, was altogether improbable.

David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute, created to advance American Democracy through promotion of the Constitution, civic education, equal protection and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His scholarly writings have been quoted by the US Supreme Court, lower federal courts and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

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