Douglas, William O.

An associate justice for nearly thirty-seven years, Douglas served longer on the Supreme Court than anyone else. As an associate justice, he always followed the Bill of Rights closely.

Douglas was born in rural Minnesota but moved to Yakima, Washington, in 1904 with his newly widowed mother. Douglas, who contracted polio at age three, improved his health by becoming an outdoorsman and throughout his life was a naturalist and conservationist. After graduation from Whitman College in 1920, Douglas attended Columbia University Law School and was graduated second in his class in 1925. He then worked for a Wall Street law firm and taught at Columbia, leaving New York in 1932 to assume Yale University’s Sterling Chair of Commercial and Corporate Law.Roosevelt, Franklin D.;nominations to the Court

Early Public Service

In 1934 Douglas, whose legal career focused on corporate reorganization and bankruptcy, joined the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He was appointed SEC commissioner on January 21, 1936, and became chair of the SEC on September 21, 1937. The young lawyer continually impressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who considered him a possible candidate for the vice presidency in 1940 and again in 1944. On March 20, 1939, Roosevelt nominated Douglas to the Supreme Court, making him one of the youngest people ever nominated to such a position. Douglas was sworn in as an associate justice on April 17, 1939, at age forty-one.

William O. Douglas

(Library of Congress)

President Harry S Truman approached Douglas to become his running mate in 1948, but Douglas demurred. In the early 1950’s he had considerable support as a possible Democratic candidate for the presidency but had little interest in leaving the Court to enter politics. In any case, his divorce from his first wife, Mildred, in 1953 diminished his appeal as a major political contender.

Career as an Associate Justice

Douglas was among the Court’s most controversial associate justices. He married four women and divorced three of them. In 1966, at age sixty-eight, he married his fourth wife, who was so much younger than he that many conservative Americans considered him immoral. Personal matters had an effect on the public’s perception of this gifted and intelligent jurist. He was frequently threatened with impeachment, the earliest threat coming in 1951 when he aroused public ire by advocating that the United States recognize communist China. In 1970 conservative members of the House of Representatives, rankled by Douglas’s liberal decisions in court cases but also appalled by his personal antics, sought his impeachment.

A major factor in such efforts in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was Douglas’s dissent when the Court decided not to review several cases that challenged the legality of the Vietnam War.Vietnam War By that time, the nation was strongly divided by this conflict. The lines between liberals and conservatives were sharply drawn. Douglas, the ardent liberal, seemed to many in the opposition to be traitorous for suggesting that the Court consider the legality of the Vietnam engagement, which had already caused considerable social unrest in the United States.

Douglas was a strong advocate of enforcing and applying the Bill of Rights. He insisted that its guarantees be applied to people accused of crimes and tried in state courts. At this time, many courts in the South were particularly brazen in violating the rights of those who opposed segregation and who protested publicly for the rights of minorities, including the voting rights guaranteed them under the Constitution but often denied them by specious state and local ordinances that dictated how precinct lines were drawn and that applied unreasonable literacy tests to African Americans, thereby disfranchising them.

In 1961 Mapp v. Ohio[case]Mapp v. Ohio[Mapp v. Ohio] became one of the most important cases in Douglas’s career as a jurist. Prior to Mapp, Douglas had argued that the Bill of Rights applied to individual states under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Mapp, however, involved the search of Dollree Mapp’s home without a proper warrant. The police were seeking someone suspected in a bombing, but Mapp refused to admit them without a warrant. When they returned three hours later with a paper purported to be warrant, they refused to allow Mapp to read the paper. When she attempted to grab it, they manhandled her and subsequently searched her house.

The police did not find their suspect. They did, however, find a stash of pornography in Mapp’s basement and arrested her for possessing that material. Douglas argued that Mapp’s Fourth Amendment rights, protecting her against unwarranted search and seizure, had been violated. Four other justices were persuaded by Douglas’s argument and ruled that the State of Ohio had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights.

Douglas’s Contribution

History has dealt kindly with the controversial rulings that originally brought the wrath of the community down on Douglas, who took courageous stands that were unpopular at the time. His flamboyant personal life also colored public images of him. After his death, most people who have viewed his career objectively have concluded that Douglas was a uniquely qualified jurist who fought strenuously to uphold the constitutional tenets of the fathers of the nation.Douglas, William O.

Further Reading

  • Ball, Howard, and Phillip J. Cooper. Of Power and Right: Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, and America’s Constitutional Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Belknap, Michal R. The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2004.
  • Countryman, Vern. The Judicial Record of Justice William O. Douglas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.
  • Douglas, William O. Nature’s Justice: Writings of William O. Douglas. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000.
  • Durum, James C. Justice William O. Douglas. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
  • Murphy, Bruce Allen. Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Simon, James F. Independent Journey: The Life of William O. Douglas. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.
  • Wasby, Stephen L., ed. He Shall Not Pass This Way Again: The Legacy of William O. Douglas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990.
  • Yarbrough, Tinsley E. The Burger Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2000.

Bill of Rights

Due process, procedural

Due process, substantive

Fourth Amendment

Mapp v. Ohio

Roosevelt, Franklin D.

Vietnam War