William Douglas

1898 – 1980

by Steve Gosden

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1939-1975), former chairman of of the Securities and Exchange Commission (1937-1939), and ardent conservationist, William Orville Douglas was one of the most controversial public figures in American history.

Douglas was born October 16, 1898 in Maine. Minn., son of Reverend William Douglas and his wife, Julia Douglas. He grew up in Estrella, California and Cleveland, Washington before the family finally settled in Yakima, Washington. At age three he was stricken with polio. He escaped permanent paralysis and as a youth he forced himself to participate in physical exercise that gave him a strong love of the outdoors.

Douglas graduated from Yakima High School (1916) and was valedictorian of his class. Because of his scholastic ability he was awarded a partial scholarship to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where he graduated (1920) Phi Beta Kappa. He returned to Yakima where he taught Latin and English at the local high school for two years.

He attended Columbia University (1923-1925) where he received his law degree (1925) and graduated second in his class. During his law student years he married Mildred Riddle. After graduation he joined the Wall Street law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine, and Wood where he practiced corporate law (1925-1926) and taught at Columbia Law School.

He returned to Yakima, Washington (1926) where he practiced law before returning to New York City (1927) where he taught full time at Columbia Law School. He joined the faculty at Yale Law school where he taught from 1928-1934. While at Yale he was known for his studies in bankruptcy law.

He accepted a position with the Securities and Exchange Commission (1934) and was appointed SEC Commissioner (1936). He became Chairman of the SEC (1937-1939), replacing Joseph P. Kennedy.

President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Douglas to the Supreme Court (1939) to replace Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Many thought that Douglas would be pro-business but, instead, he became a strong individualist and interpreter of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. He opposed censorship in any form and, because of this, became the target of political conservatives.

Douglas had been considered a nominee for vice-president on three occasions (1940, 1944 and 1948). In 1952 he refused to run as a democratic presidential nominee.

As Supreme Court Justice Douglas was often the dissenting vote. During his stay on the bench he often faced critics who demanded his impeachment. The first came in 1952 when he granted a stay of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who had been found guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

In 1954, Douglas organized a 189 mile hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to protest a proposed highway into the area. Thanks to his efforts the the highway plans were abandoned. Four years later, Douglas organized a hike along a secluded section of beach in Olympic National Park to protest a roadway planned for the area. The roadway plans were later abandoned.

There were more calls for his impeachment in the late 1960s and early 1970s because of his criticism of the Vietnam War and his marriage to a much younger woman. In1970, Congressman (later President) Gerald Ford (R-Mich.) organized another attempt to impeach Douglas. This attempt also failed.

On December 31, 1974 Douglas suffered a stroke at his home and was rushed toÅ@Walter reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. After months on convalescing he returned to the Supreme Court but his health was fragile at best. Realizing he could no longer do the job, Douglas retired on November 12, 1975, after more than 36 years of service. He died on January 19, 1980 at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. He was 81 years old.

The William O. Douglas Wilderness in Washington state was named for him and honors him for his role in Federal Wilderness legislation and environmental issues, as well as his dedication and love for the Cougar Lakes region (now part of the Wilderness).

In his book A WILDERNESS BILL OF RIGHTS (1965) Douglas wrote: “conservation park is not a playground. It is not an amusement center. The Disneyland approach is at war with the idea of conservation parks. Those who want to play tennis or basketball or practice on bars need a gymnasium or a stadium…The conservation park should returnman to the environment from which he came.

Web Links

There is a biographical essay at Yakima Valley Museum website. Other information can be found at the University of Pennsylvania website, including information about his judicial decisions. There’s a page of quotations from Douglas’ writings here. The U.S. Forest Service Website has some information about the William O. Douglas Wilderness in Washington State. The Sierra Club website has an excerpt from Douglas’ book about John Muir.

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