William O. Douglas

William O. Douglas Biography

Educator, Supreme Court Justice, Government Official, Lawyer, Judge (1898–1980)
William O. Douglas was a legal scholar and often controversial 20th century Supreme Court justice known for his civil liberties advocacy.


Born on October 16, 1898, in Maine, Minnesota, William O. Douglas studied and taught law before becoming SEC chairman and being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Douglas became a major advocate of civil libertarianism during his decades-long career on the bench while being known as a difficult figure in his personal life. He died on January 19, 1980.

Background and Early Career

William Orville Douglas was born on October 16, 1898, in Maine, Minnesota, with the family later moving to Yakima, Washington. Sickly as a child, his mother encouraged him to be physically active outdoors, and he developed a deep awareness of the environment.

Douglas attended Whitman College and taught high school before entering Columbia University's law program, graduating in the mid-1920s and eventually joining the school's faculty. He later joined Yale University's faculty, and by 1937, during the Depression era, became chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Appointed Supreme Court Justice

His SEC post saw Douglas working with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who nominated the legal expert to the Supreme Court to fill the spot left by Louis Brandeis in early 1939. Douglas was confirmed and took his seat in April of that same year.

Douglas established a career that saw him staunchly advocating civil libertarianism, joining friend and ally Justice Hugo Black in championing the Bill of Rights. He was known for his dissent in the case of 1951's Dennis v. U.S., with Douglas defending the free-speech rights of American Communist members, as well as his opinion on cases like 1965's Griswold v. Connecticut, which supported the right for a married couple to access contraception.

Faced Impeachment

Douglas was also against governmental wiretapping, the Vietnam War and the administration of President Richard Nixon in general. He continued to be a lover of nature who nonetheless had a reputation for expecting an exacting, exhausting level of work from his law clerks.

Douglas also faced multiple impeachment proceedings during his career, unsuccessfully spearheaded by then House of Representatives minority leader Gerald Ford.

Douglas went on to hold the record for the longest tenure on the Supreme Court, retiring in November 1975—after more than 36 years on the bench and highly resistant to leaving his post—due to a stroke. He died on January 19, 1980, in Washington, D.C.

Personal Life and Books

Douglas was known to have had a tumultuous personal life. A reputed boozer and womanizer who was married four times, he was estranged from his two children and struggled financially, having to take on speaking work and allegedly utilizing stock market insider information to garner money.

Books on his life include Douglas's two autobiographies as well as Nature's Justice: Writings of William O. Douglas (2000), edited by James M. O'Fallon, and Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas (2003), by Bruce Allen Murphy. (The latter work disputes some of the claims that Douglas made about his life.) Douglas also wrote books on the ecology and travel.

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