William O. Douglas was the court's most undeviating liberal voice right up to his sudden retirement last week. In his later years, some critics came to view Douglas as a dangerous radical. Yet Douglas did not see the court as a tool for radical social change, "but rather as a mechanism to keep open the democratic process," says Yale Law Professor Thomas I. Emerson. To this end his decisions supported free speech, the broadest possible interpretation of individual constitutional rights and, less often noted, far-reaching Government power to regulate the economy.
The free-speech issue was particularly easy for him. He simply saw no exceptions to the First Amendment's command. With the late Hugo Black, he filed unwavering dissents in sedition and related cases during the McCarthy era, although he condemned Communism's "miserable merchants of unwanted ideas." In the '60s, when even Black balked occasionally at disruptions caused by some protesters, Douglas hewed to his view that dissenting speech could never legally be curtailed. He followed a similar pattern in suits concerning the rights of criminal defendants. No matter what the real or imagined burdens on the criminal-justice system, Douglas insisted that a citizen's constitutional rights had to be paramount.
Asked recently to pick the most important decisions in which he had participated, he cited the 1964 one-man, one-vote reapportionment ruling and the 1954 Brown school desegregation case. Then, surprisingly, he added a 1944 opinion that had established a clear formula under which "a utility was entitled to make a return sufficient to at tract capital and keep going." Douglas understood "the matters of corporate finance better than any lawyer I've ever known," says Harvard Law Professor Vern Countryman.
Douglas was reared in poverty by his widowed mother in Yakima, Wash., near the mountains where he would later build his beloved wilderness retreat. A lifelong conservationist, naturalist and enthusiastic hiker-climber, he began challenging mountains as a boy in order to rebuild legs ravaged by polio. After graduating from Whitman College, he hitched a freight to New York City, arriving with 60 in his pocket, then worked his way through Columbia Law Schoolonce writing a text for a law correspondence course in a subject he had yet to take himself.
Nine years after his graduation, he left the Yale Law faculty to join and eventually chair the New Deal Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1939 he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt. He faced down three impeachment attempts over the years. The first two were relatively weak efforts, one in 1953 after he stayed the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and one in 1966 when the three-times divorced Douglas, then 67, married Cathleen Heffernan, who like his third wife was in her 20s. (Douglas had a son and a daughter by his first wife.) The last and most serious impeachment move, led by then House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, came in 1970, partly in retaliation for the rejection by mostly liberal Senators of Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell. But there was more to it than that. It was also based on Douglas' unseemly $12,000 annual fee from a scholarship-granting foundation set up by Albert Parvin, who had links to Las Vegas.