DOUGLAS, William O.

(1898-1980). For more than 36 years William O. Douglas served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, the longest time served on record. Known as a champion of civil liberties and the rights of minorit a naturalist who wrote on conservation as well as history, politics, and foreign relations.

William Orville Douglas was born on Oct. 16, 1898, in Maine, Minn., and grew up in California and Washington. As a youth, he fell ill with polio, but he escaped permanent paralysis, and a self-imposed program of exercise left him with a lifelong love of the outdoors.

Douglas received his law degree from Columbia University in New York City in 1925. He joined a Wall Street law firm but in 1927 became an assistant professor at Columbia's law school and the next year at Yale University's law school. He was at Yale until his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1939.

At Yale Douglas became known for his studies in bankruptcy, working also with the Department of Commerce. In 1934 he directed a related study for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was named to the commission in 1936 and chairman the following year.

When he succeeded Justice Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court, Douglas was thought to be pro-business, but he became known for his absolutist interpretation of the guarantees of freedom in the Bill of Rights. His opposition to any form of censorship made him a frequent target of political conservatives and religious fundamentalists.

Often in dissent in the years before the more liberal court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, Douglas faced impeachment charges, or formal charges of official misconduct, in the early 1950s, when he granted a stay of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who had been convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Anti-Douglas feelings climaxed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his criticism of United States conduct in Southeast Asia and his fourth marriage, to a woman 45 years his junior, subjected him to further attempts at impeachment.

  • Go to an except from Douglas's The Court Years on fifties-era court decisions about communism and civil liberties.


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    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:36 EDT