William O. Douglas

Justice William O. Douglas holds the record for service on the U.S. Supreme Court, 36 years and 7 months, longer than any other justice in Court history. During his career, he gained a reputation as one of the Court’s leading defenders of civil liberties. However, by many accounts, Douglas was harsh on his clerks and difficult to work with, and he led a notorious personal life. His life, career, and contributions to the Court are reviewed in this entry.

Early Years

Douglas was born in Minnesota in 1898, but for most of his early years, he lived near Yakima, Washington. His father died when Douglas was only 6 years old, and as a child Douglas had to overcome illness and poverty. He suffered from polio, and for therapy he often took long hikes in the mountains, which he frequently claimed was the basis of his passion for the outdoors and the environment. In the case of Sierra Club v. Morton (1972, dissent), Douglas asserted that “trees” have standing to sue.

Douglas worked his way through high school and college and was a schoolteacher for a short time before enrolling at Columbia University Law School. Despite having to work at various jobs and as a tutor, he graduated as one of the top students in his class. After graduation from law school, Douglas briefly worked at a Wall Street law firm. Restless with law practice, he left to teach at Columbia Law School. He then went on to become one of the youngest professors to hold a chair at Yale Law School, where he specialized in business and corporate law.

A staunch New Dealer, Douglas was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and subsequently was elevated by Roosevelt to be SEC chair. In 1944, Roosevelt considered the possibility of choosing Douglas as his vice presidential running mate before finally selecting Harry S Truman.

On the Bench

In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Douglas to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the retirement of Justice Louis Brandeis. At the age of 41, he was one of the youngest justices in Supreme Court history. During Douglas’s long career on the Supreme Court, he became one of its most liberal members and gained a reputation as a great civil libertarian, particularly in the area of free speech.

During the Joseph McCarthy “red scare” era, he filed dissents in cases such as Dennis v. United States (1951), where the Supreme Court upheld convictions of American Communist Party members for conspiring to teach and advocate overthrow of the government. Douglas, along with fellow Justice Hugo Black, often took a so-called absolutist view of the First Amendment, interpreting it to mean that “no law” abridging the freedom of speech or press literally meant that these constitutional guarantees were absolute and could not be infringed upon or violated by governmental action.

During the 1970s, Douglas’s alleged conflicts of interest, his supposedly extreme positions on issues such as obscenity, and his unconventional lifestyle led Republicans in Congress such as House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to call for his impeachment. (Douglas was divorced and remarried three times. His last wife was 22 and he was 66 when they married.) Some felt that the move to impeach Justice Douglas was motivated by Republican retaliation for the Senate’s rejection of President Nixon’s first two nominees to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the resignation of Justice Abe Fortas. The impeachment resolution died in committee, but perhaps it sent a political message to Congress and the Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most famous opinion written by Justice Douglas was in the contraceptive case, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). In striking down the state statute prohibiting counseling of married couples to use contraceptives, the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional “right to privacy.” Although nowhere expressly stated in the Constitution, Douglas found the right to emanate from “penumbras” of specific guarantees such as the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth amendments to the Constitution.

In 1974, Douglas suffered a severe stroke that partially paralyzed him and from which he never fully recovered. Even so, Douglas did not step down despite his poor health and impaired functioning, and he returned to the Court for the next term. A shadow of his former self, Douglas reluctantly submitted his letter of resignation on November 12, 1975. Douglas died on January 19, 1980.

Justice Douglas left a mixed legacy. He was brilliant but idiosyncratic. Douglas was a prolific author who often wrote his own opinions, producing them much more quickly than his colleagues. However, his opinions were not always tightly reasoned and often tended to reflect his own personal views of the Constitution. Admirers praised Douglas’s defense of civil liberties and commitment to individual rights. Critics felt that his views were not consistent and that he often took positions out of self-aggrandizement rather than principle.

Record on Education

During his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Douglas’s major contributions to education law were in the areas of school desegregation, minority rights, and separation of church and state. Although Douglas was noted for advocating the rights of dissidents and minorities, he occasionally in times of patriotic fervor supported repressive government actions. In the first flag-salute case, Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), Douglas joined with the majority in upholding compulsory flag-salute laws. However, he recanted his earlier position and joined in the reversal of Gobitis three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). In the nowinfamous Korematsu v. United States (1944), he joined with fellow liberal Justice Black in upholding the exclusion of Japanese Americans from their homes in so-called “military zones.”

On Discrimination

Douglas strongly supported desegregation of American schools. He concurred with all of the major Warren Court desegregation decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and Cooper v. Aaron (1958). When the Burger Court began retreating on court-ordered desegregation remedies in the case of Milliken v. Bradley (1974), Douglas dissented.

Justice Douglas wrote the opinion of the Court in Lau v. Nichols (1974), holding that the failure of the San Francisco school system to provide English language instruction to students of Chinese ancestry who did not speak English, or to provide them with other adequate instruction procedures, denied them a meaningful opportunity to participate in public education, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance.

On Church and State

In First Amendment free exercise cases, Douglas typically supported freedom of religion. He joined the Court’s opinion reversing the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness for solicitation in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940). He concurred in Sherbert v.Verner (1963), the dispute involving the rights of Seventh-Day Adventists to unemployment compensation. Here the Court enunciated the Sherbert test requiring a compelling state interest for government to interfere with the free exercise of religion. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), which exempted Amish parents from state compulsory attendance laws, Douglas was the sole dissenter, arguing that the rights of students should also be considered as well as of the rights of parents and the interest of the state.

Douglas was generally a proponent of separation of church and state. He concurred in the Court’s opinion in the companion cases of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, Murray v. Curlett (1963), striking down required recitation by students of Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer. He also concurred in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), upholding reimbursement to parents for the costs of public transportation to parochial schools. However, in dissenting from the Court’s opinion in Board of Education. v. Allen (1968), upholding loaning of secular subject textbooks to parochial school students, Douglas commented that “there is nothing ideological about a bus. . . . [But] the textbook goes to the heart of education in a parochial school” (p. 257).

Justice Douglas concurred in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), in which the Supreme Court found a program releasing public school students during class time to attend religious classes in public school buildings unconstitutional. Yet, he authored the opinion of the court in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) upholding the practice of allowing released time for public school students to receive religious instruction during school hours if taken outside public school grounds. The dictum by Douglas in the opinion that “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” (p. 313) is often quoted by opponents of a strict separationist approach to Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

Michael Yates

See also Limited English Proficiency; Prayer in Public Schools; Released Time; Religious Activities in Public Schools

Further Readings

  • Douglas, W. O. (1980). The court years, 1939–1975: The autobiography of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House. 
  • Murphy, B. A. (2003). Wild Bill: The legend and life of William O. Douglas. New York: Random House. 
  • Simon, J. F. (1980). Independent journey: The life of William O. Douglas. New York: Harper & Row. 

Legal Citations