Biography for William O. Douglas
During his record 36 years on the U.S. Supreme Court, William Orville Douglas was a consistent champion of individual civil liberties. In hundreds of opinions, frequently delivered in dissent, he consistently voted for a broad exercise of the Supreme Court's powers to limit government power when it threatened to infringe on individual liberties. Douglas was born on October 16, 1898 in Maine, Minnesota. His father was an impoverished Presbyterian minister. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to California and later Yakima, Washington. There, in 1905, Douglas was stricken with poliomyelitis. He recovered and in order to build up his stamina, became an avid hiker. Douglas graduated from Whitman College in 1920 and earned his law degree from Columbia University Law School in 1925. He joined a Wall Street law firm but quickly became disenchanted and decided to become a law professor. After briefly teaching at Columbia, he settled at Yale in 1928 and became an expert on financial law. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Douglas to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a New Deal agency created to regulate Wall Street business practices, in 1936. Nine months later, Douglas became the SEC chairman. In 1939, President Roosevelt appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served until ill health forced him to resign in 1975. During his long, controversial tenure on the Court, Douglas vigorously argued that the Bill of Rights was applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After the decision in Mapp v. Ohio (1961), when a majority of the Court agreed that the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures did apply to the states, Douglas' perspective on this issue was usually upheld. However, he still frequently spoke in the minority when it came to interpreting just how much individual liberty the Constitution protected. In advocating what he termed "full and free discussion even of ideas we hate," Douglas read the First Amendment as a virtually absolute curb on governmental interference with speech of all kinds, with the press, with peaceable assembly, and with association: "The First Amendment makes confidence in the common sense of our people and in the maturity of their judgment the great postulate of our democracy. . . . When ideas compete in the market, full and free discussion exposes the false and they gain few adherents." Douglas was also outspoken in seeking to protect people from unreasonable search and seizure, from erosions of their privilege against self-incrimination, from intrusions into their privacy, and from what he saw as lapses in due process: "It is no answer that a man is doubtlessly guilty. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect every accused against practices of the police which history showed were oppressive." Douglas was extremely sensitive to the historical role of the Supreme Court in protecting the rights of "political, religious, and racial minorities" and advocated using whatever judicial tools were available or could be created through a broad interpretation of the Constitution by the Court to promote equality. He was a "judicial activist" in the sense of believing that the Court could be used to promote social change; as such, he helped to define the character of the Court under Earl Warren. In addition to his work on the Supreme Court, Douglas was an avid world traveler, wilderness hiker, prolific writer, naturalist, and conservationist. His published works include An Almanac of Liberty (1954), Democracy's Manifesto (1962), A Wilderness Bill of Rights (1965), Points of Rebellion (1970), and Go East Young Man (1974). He died on January 19, 1980.