Douglas, William Orville

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Douglas, William Orville

William Orville Douglas, 1898–1980, American jurist, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1939–75), b. Maine, Minn. He received his law degree from Columbia in 1925 and later was professor of law at Yale. A Democrat, Douglas was appointed (1934) to the Securities and Exchange Commission; as chairman (1937–39) he pursued a vigorous policy of reform. He was prominent as a proponent of the New Deal and was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He became known on the court for his fervent support of civil rights, conservation, and personal and civil liberties, particularly the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Consistently liberal, in 1953 he granted a stay of execution to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and were subsequently executed (see Rosenberg case). The House of Representatives made an unsuccessful attempt to impeach Douglas for this act. His 1965 decision reversing Connecticut's ban on contraceptives ushered in an era of significant privacy rulings.

Among Douglas's published works are case books on business law and volumes on American law and civil rights, including We The Judges (1956) and A Living Bill of Rights (1961). An advocate of outdoor life and an enthusiastic traveler, Douglas wrote many books on these subjects, including Men and Mountains (1950), Russian Journey (1956), My Wilderness (1962), and The Three Hundred Year War: A Chronicle of Ecological Disaster (1972). He also wrote the autobiographies Go East Young Man (1974) and The Court Years (1980). Douglas was sometimes critized for various ethical lapses in his personal life, and the heroic image that emerges in his autobiographical works has been somewhat tarnished by discoveries that he had bent the truth on a number of details, e.g., his youthful health and social status, his military service, and his academic record. Nonetheless, his reputation as an outstanding jurist, staunch protector of privacy and civil rights, and defender of the environment remains intact. An anthology (1959) of Douglas's Supreme Court opinions was compiled by V. Countryman.

See biographies by J. F. Simon (1980) and B. A. Murphy (2003); H. Bosmajian, Justice Douglas and Freedom of Speech (1980); N. Feldman, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices (2010).

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