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SUPREME COURT HISTORY
Law, Power & Personality
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Portrait of William Orville Douglas
Portrait of William Orville Douglas.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
William Orville Douglas

b. October 16, 1898, Maine, MN
d. January 19, 1980, Washington, D.C.


Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
(1939-1975)


Born in Minnesota, William Orville Douglas contracted polio when he was three years old. His family was told that he would be forever crippled and would probably die before he reached 40. His father, a Presbyterian minister, died two years later and the family moved to Yakima, Washington, when Douglas was six. Most of the family's remaining money was lost in a failed investment, and they had just enough left to buy a house across from the local elementary school. Told by his mother that he could recover the use of his legs and run again "like the wind," Douglas took to exercising and hiking in the local mountains, where he developed a lifelong love of nature.

He graduated from Yakima High School and, lacking money to go to the University of Washington, attended Whitman College on a scholarship, working several jobs to supplement his meager funds. He graduated in 1920 Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's in English and economics, and taught high school for two years.

In 1923 Douglas hitched train rides cross-country to attend Columbia Law School, where he received his degree in 1925, second in his class. He joined a Wall Street firm, quit after four months, then drifted for several months. He joined the faculty of Columbia Law School but left to teach at Yale Law School only two years later, where he specialized in corporate law, finance, and bankruptcy and became a recognized expert in the field. In 1934 he left Yale to head a study for the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), joining the SEC in 1936 and becoming its chairman in 1937. In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt summoned Douglas and announced "I have a new job for you. ... It's a job you'll detest." The president appointed him to succeed Louis Brandeis on the Supreme Court. Douglas was 40 years old, the second youngest justice in the history of the Court.

One of Douglas' most famous opinions was written for the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Court invalidated a state law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to married couples. Douglas defined a "right to privacy" which he believed emanated from "penumbras" of rights including the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments.

Douglas was a libertarian and distrustful of all establishments. Eccentric and willful, he sympathized with the disadvantaged and was suspicious of those who inherited wealth or social position. Like Justice Hugo Black, he was an absolutist with respect for the Bill of Rights. He was a brilliant jurist but an impetuous writer and he drafted opinions quickly and, sometimes, carelessly. In the 1960s he became a spokesman for numerous liberal causes. A lover of nature since his youth, he served on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club from 1960 to 1962 and promoted the fledgling environmental movement. An early divorce settlement placed him in financial straits, and he was forced to publish and take speaking engagements to pay his bills. So liberal were his activities and so hostile was he to the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration that House Minority Leader Gerald Ford attempted to have him impeached in 1970, and President Nixon put him under surveillance, trying to find inproprieties in his private life that could force him off the bench.

Douglas was married four times, twice to college students much younger than he. He deeply alienated his two children, one of whom termed him "scary." He suffered a stroke in 1974 and retired from the bench in 1975. Douglas wrote more opinions and dissents than any other justice in the history of the Court, and his tenure of 36 years and seven months set a record that remains unbroken.


Louis D. Brandeis Sandra Day O'Connor Henry Baldwin Peter Daniel James McReynolds William Douglas Stephen Field Joseph Story view all biographies