A Flawed Study

By Brickner, Paul | Judicature, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

A Flawed Study


Brickner, Paul, Judicature


A flawed study Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, by Bruce A. Murphy. New York: Random House. 2003. 716 pages. $35.00.

Wlliam O. Douglas holds the record for the longest tenure of any Supreme Court justice-from 1939 to 1975. He also holds the record for having the greatest numher of divorces and marriages of any justice in the history of the Supreme Court. While a sitting justice, he divorced his first, second, and third wives and married his second, third, and fourth.

Douglas, born in Minnesota, was raised primarily in Washington state, where he attended Whitman College before heading east to attend law school at Columbia. He claimed to have been second in his law school class, but Professor Murphy tells us that was a lie. Nonetheless, Douglas, who did rank near the top of his class, became a distinguished academician at two great law schools, Columbia and Yale, almost took a position at the University of Chicago law school, and almost became dean of Yale's law school.

Douglas passed up the deanship at Yale because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed him an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Earlier, he had been a commissioner and then chair of the securities and Exchange Commission (1934-1939), the regulatory agency created in response to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Douglas, long an expert in corporate law, had authored several casebooks on business law and had worked for major Wall Street law firms. On both Wall Street and at the sec, he quickly achieved the status of a legend. His prosecutorial-styled administrative and investigative activities resembled the reformer roles of fellow Supreme Court Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Charles Evans Hughes in their younger days. All three men earned seats on the Court, in large part, through their reformist crusading activities as well as their demonstrated academic and professional brilliance.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Douglas was a driven man. (As a young lawyer, he complained about stomach problems to his doctor, who, Murphy tells us, demonstrated to Douglas that the problems were emotionally based. Although the doctor concealed Douglas's identity, he wrote an important medical article about his young lawyer patient.) Douglas's mother, widowed when he was only six, wanted him to become president-a dream that Douglas shared. He narrowly lost out on becoming Roosevelt's vice president to Harry S. Truman, the favorite of political bosses and union leaders. Later, when Truman wanted Douglas as his vice presidential running mate, Douglas toyed with Truman by delaying his answer and making the president call him back twice at his rustic and remote summer cabin in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon before declining the offer. Had he told Truman yes, Douglas might have gone on to achieve his and his mother's goal of the White House.

(His decision was influenced by his belief that Truman would lose the election-and perhaps also by feelings of animosity. In the foreword to his book Towards a Global Federalism (1948), Douglas blamed Truman, together with Stalin and Churchill, for the "bankruptcy" of his generation: "Their thinking has been warped by one evil man (Stalin), by another who was ignorant of the world and its problems (Truman), and by a third (Churchill) who was a romanticist but a true apostle of the Rule of Force and white supremacy.")

Murphy covers well Douglas's administrative days at the SEC and his lifelong love of nature. He reflects, throughout the book, on Douglas's remarkable career as an environmentalist. As an associate justice, for example, Douglas wrote that groves of trees had rights, and he later won a major battle to preserve the old C&O canal towpath as a park and to prevent its conversion into a highway. Murphy also eases the reader into an understanding of the geriatric problems that in his later days befell "Wild Bill," who had been an ardent outdoorsman throughout his life.

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