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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 320

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This is the grave of William O. Douglas.

Born in 1898 in Maine Township, Minnesota, Douglas’ father was an itinerant preacher and the family moved around a lot. By 1904, they were in the state of Washington but his father died in Portland that year and the family was left with nothing. They ended up in Yakima and all the kids had to work. Douglas should have just been another working class kid laboring in the timber mills or on a ranch, but he was incredibly intelligent and achieved a full scholarship to Whitman College, one of top liberal arts colleges in the West. He excelled there, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a dual degree in English and economics, and then taught for a couple of years to earn money for law school, back when such a thing was possible. He went to Columbia Law and finished second in his class. He only briefly practiced before taking a job at his law alma mater and then jumped to Yale.

In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt tapped into this rising star and increasingly prominent liberal voice, naming him to a position at the Securities and Exchange Commission. They became close and Douglas was one of his top advisors by 1937. When Louis Brandeis resigned in 1939, FDR named Douglas to the Court, even though he was only 40 at the time. He won confirmation by a 62-4 vote. And he became one of the great justices in American history, pushing a strongly activist liberal agenda that disturbed other justices who believed in legal restraint. I actually really appreciate Douglas cutting through the pretension of the American legal system and basically admitting that he didn’t need to worry much about precedent or any of that. These were primarily political decisions he made and so it is with almost every other justice too, but they obfuscate this with their legal mumbo-jumbo. Douglas would write short opinions filled with non-legal references. He also wrote his own dissents over and over, as he was the great dissenter of pretty much all time. Most of these dissents were just representing himself. Sure, he had a gigantic ego. But so do most of these people.

In terms of policy, Douglas was an absolutist on the First Amendment. He wrote the decision in Terminiello v. City of Chicago, which overturned the conviction of a priest who started a disturbance for making anti-Semitic statements in public. Douglas did however have one enormous black mark on his record on these issues, which was his support of Korematsu, one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history. In 1965, he wrote the decision in Griswold, upholding the right to birth control through his broad reading of the Constitution, which went too far for his common ally Hugo Black, who dissented on that case. He issued a stay of execution for killing the Rosenbergs, which so outraged public opinion in that right-wing age that there was talk of impeachment, and the stay was soon overturned by the Court as a whole.

Through all of this, Douglas stayed much more directly involved in politics than most justices of this period. In 1944, when FDR chose to replace Henry Wallace as VP, his replacement came down to two finalists–Truman and Douglas. One wonders what would have happened had he chosen the far more liberal Douglas. Could he have won in 1948? Douglas was the hope of anti-Truman forces in the Democratic Party in 1948 when Truman was at the depth of his popularity and he was definitely interested in running, but it went nowhere. Truman then offered Douglas the VP spot, but he turned it down, figuring he had more power where he was, and Alben Barkley got that instead. Douglas also took a direct role in Vietnam, traveling to that country in 1953, meeting both Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem. He became a huge supporter of the latter, introducing him to leaders of the American political community such as Mike Mansfield and JFK, both of whom became major boosters as they shared the common faith of Catholicism. This was a terrible way to run foreign policy about a nation the U.S. knew nothing about, but there it is. Douglas remained in favor of American intervention in Vietnam up to the point of Diem’s 1963 assassination, which he believed happened because the latter was not subservient enough to the CIA. He was mostly wrong about that and Diem was a complete disaster, but in the aftermath, Douglas became one of the war’s major early detractors. In fact, in 1973, Douglas unilaterally ordered the military to halt the war! The Court as a whole met by telephone 6 hours later and overturned the order 8-1. In 1970, Gerald Ford, who loathed Douglas and found him and his extravagant lifestyle personally disgusting (Ford was nothing if not an uptight Midwestern tightwad), also tried to get Douglas impeached over some conflict of interest stuff that wasn’t too different from what Abe Fortas had to resign over. There was actually hearings over this, with Ford ranting against Douglas supported filth (this was over whether I Am Yellow was pornographic) and his “liberal” opinions. In conclusion, Gerald Ford was a much worse person than is commonly remembered today.

Douglas was also one of the nation’s leading environmentalists. By the 1950s, he was the lead player in turning the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac into a National Park site, which finally happened in 1971. He served on the board of the Sierra Club in the early 60s, wrote a critical early positive review of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and led the charge to save the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and the Buffalo River in Arkansas from being dammed. He walked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail during his life, although not all at once. This environmentalism included his Court decisions. In 1972’s Sierra Club v. Morton, he argued that inanimate objects, in this case trees, should have legal standing in American courts.

Douglas’ tenure on the Court didn’t end real well. He was interested in retiring as early as the 1970 Ford attacks on him, but he stayed with it. But in 1974, he had a stroke. Yet he wouldn’t retire, even though he was completely incapable of doing anything, even as he slowly recovered. Finally, Fortas convinced Douglas to step down in 1975. John Paul Stevens replaced him. But Douglas didn’t seem to quite get what retirement meant and tried to stay on the Court and hear cases until the rest of the judges told him to knock it off! But by this time, his mental and physical capacity was just not there.

William O. Douglas died in 1980. He is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit more Supreme Court justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Antonin Scalia is buried in Fairfax, Virginia and Byron White is in Denver. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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