William O. Douglas Biography

(Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Birthday: October 16, 1898 (Libra)

Born In: Maine Township, Minnesota, United States

William O. Douglas was an American politician and jurist who served as an associate justice of the ‘Supreme Court of the United States.’ Born in Minnesota and raised in California and Washington, he graduated from the ‘Yakima High School’ in Washington. He hailed from a lower-middle-class family and thus did odd jobs to make ends meet while also pursuing his education at the same time. Seeing many instances of injustice around him, he decided to pursue law and joined the ‘Columbia Law School.’ Until 1934, he worked in the law faculty of ‘Yale Law School’ and later joined the ‘U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,’ as a political appointee, nominated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. Earning great admiration of President Roosevelt, William was also the vice presidential nominee for the ‘Democratic Party’ in 1944. In 1939, he was successfully nominated as an associate justice of the ‘Supreme Court,’ a position he held for the next 36 years and 211 days, making him the longest-running justice in the history of the ‘US Supreme Court.’ He was behind majority opinions in many high-profile cases, such as ‘United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.,’ ‘Brady v. Maryland,’ and ‘Griswold v. Connecticut.’
Quick Facts

Also Known As: William Orville Douglas

Died At Age: 81


Spouse/Ex-: Hester Davidson (1954–1963), Joan Martin (1963–1966), Mildred Riddle (1923–1953)

father: William Douglas

mother: Julia Bickford (Fisk)

Born Country: United States

Judges Lawyers

Died on: January 19, 1980

place of death: Bethesda, Maryland, United States

Notable Alumni: Whitman College

Ancestry: Canadian American

U.S. State: Minnesota

More Facts

education: Columbia University, Whitman College

  • 1

    What were some key decisions made by William O. Douglas during his time on the Supreme Court?

    Some key decisions made by William O. Douglas during his time on the Supreme Court include Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which established the right to privacy within marriage, and United States v. Reynolds (1953), which introduced the "state secrets privilege" in legal cases.
  • 2

    How did William O. Douglas influence environmental conservation during his career?

    William O. Douglas was a strong advocate for environmental conservation and played a key role in the protection of natural resources. He authored numerous opinions that supported environmental causes and helped establish the legal framework for environmental protection in the United States.
  • 3

    What was William O. Douglas's stance on civil liberties and individual rights?

    William O. Douglas was known for his strong defense of civil liberties and individual rights. He often ruled in favor of protecting First Amendment rights, privacy rights, and due process rights, earning a reputation as a liberal champion of civil liberties on the Supreme Court.
  • 4

    How did William O. Douglas contribute to the development of First Amendment jurisprudence?

    William O. Douglas played a significant role in shaping First Amendment jurisprudence by advocating for broad protections of free speech and expression. He authored several landmark opinions that expanded the scope of First Amendment protections for individuals and the press.
  • 5

    What was the impact of William O. Douglas's dissenting opinions on the Supreme Court?

    William O. Douglas's dissenting opinions on the Supreme Court were known for their eloquence and forceful defense of minority viewpoints. While many of his dissents did not initially prevail, some later became influential in shaping future legal doctrines and interpretations.
Childhood & Early Life
William Orville Douglas was born on October 16, 1898, in Maine Township, Minnesota, US, to William Douglas and Julia Bickford. His father was from Nova Scotia and worked as a reverend. William grew up in a middle-class household. He was the second of three children.
His mother loved William more than her other children, due to a “miracle” she thought she had witnessed when William had once fallen ill. William describes the illness as polio, but other biographers say it was intestinal colic. These were almost fatal illnesses back then, and his parents thought William could not be saved. After many treatments, William showed signs of improvement and quickly recovered. His mother thought it was a miracle and nicknamed him “Treasure,” also prophesying that he would become the president of the United States.
His father passed away when William was 6 years old. His mother was a housewife. Thus, the children resorted to work while studying, to make ends meet. College education seemed almost impossible for William when he was at ‘Yakima High School,’ but he somehow managed to earn grades that were good enough to earn him a scholarship to the ‘Whitman College’ in Washington.
His membership of the ‘Beta Theta Pi’ fraternity also helped him gain some credits. He also exhibited his exceptional debating skills and served as the president of the student body in school. He earned a BA degree in English and economics and taught in high schools to be able to afford attending a law school.
He attended ‘Columbia Law School’ after he saved enough money. He also worked part-time and took help from his wife, who partially financed his law-school education. He graduated from ‘Columbia Law School’ in 1925.
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He joined ‘Yakima High School’ as a teacher and used the money earned to fund his law education. At ‘Columbia Law School,’ he came to know that a New York-based law firm wanted a student to formulate a syllabus for a correspondence course for law. Douglas took up the job.
For the next 4 months after his law-school graduation, he worked at the ‘Cravath’ law firm. He later quit the job, finding it unfulfilling. Soon, he moved back to ‘Yakima’ but never practiced law there. He was practically unemployed for some time and eventually began teaching law at ‘Columbia Law School.’
He later joined ‘Yale Law School,’ with bankruptcy and commercial litigation as his core areas. American educational philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins described William as the most outstanding law professor in the country. William was eventually promoted to the position of “Sterling Professor” at ‘Yale University.’
William wanted change. He was a left-leaning political enthusiast and had seen enough injustice meted out to migrants by the US law system. He knew that teaching would not be enough and that he had to join the political game to work toward it.
Over the years, he had gained the attention of the ‘Democratic’ president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who nominated William as a political appointee in the ‘U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’ in 1934. William was close to Roosevelt, and in a famous instance, in 1937, he persuaded the president to authorize the ‘Marshall Ford Dam.’ That exhibited his influence over Roosevelt and his skills as a budding politician.
In 1939, following the retirement of ‘Supreme Court’ justice Louis D. Brandeis, Douglas was named as his replacement by Roosevelt himself. Douglas had been known for his strong support for civil rights, such as free speech. Thus, he quickly gained a good reputation among the ‘Democratic Party.’ Moreover, he was in his early 40s during the War and his image of being “young and the righteous” further helped him cement his place among the ‘Democratic Party’ stalwarts.
As a ‘Supreme Court’ justice, he advocated the right to privacy and the rights of illegitimate children. He also upheld the limits of government interference in an average citizen’s life. He was, however, blamed by the ‘Republicans’ for making his decisions in haste and not looking properly into the cases. Unaffected by this, William maintained his strong attitude and became more popular with the masses and among the ‘Democratic Party.’
After the 1944 elections, he was seriously considered as a vice presidential candidate for the ‘Democratic Party,’ but it did not happen. He continued to work as a ‘Supreme Court’ justice and became known as one of the most committed civil libertarians to ever sit in the ‘Supreme Court’ as a justice.
William was credited with writing majority opinions in many famous cases, such as ‘United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.,’ ‘Terminiello v. City of Chicago,’ ‘Brady v. Maryland,’ and ‘Griswold v. Connecticut.’
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Family, Personal Life & Death
William married his ‘North Yakima High School’ teacher Mildred Riddle in August 1923. They had two children, before they divorced in 1953. She had partially funded William’s law-school education.
The reason for the divorce was William’s affair with Mercedes Hester Davidson, and he did not hide that from the world. In 1954, he married Mercedes. The marriage lasted until 1963.
The reason, yet again, was his infidelity, as he pursued a woman named Joan Martin, who was 41 years younger than him. The marriage lasted a few years and ended in a divorce in 1966.
He then married a 22-year-old waitress named Cathleen Heffernan in 1966. They remained together until his death in 1980.
William died at the age of 81, on January 19, 1980. He had retired from the ‘Supreme Court’ 4 years before his demise.
Facts About William O. Douglas
Douglas was an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, often taking breaks from his duties as a Supreme Court justice to explore the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
Douglas was known for his unconventional approach to writing opinions, often incorporating literary references and personal anecdotes into his legal analyses.
Despite his esteemed position on the Supreme Court, Douglas maintained a down-to-earth demeanor and was known for his casual attire, often sporting a bow tie and hiking boots in the courtroom.
Douglas was a strong advocate for environmental conservation and was instrumental in expanding protections for public lands during his time on the bench.
In addition to his legal career, Douglas was a prolific author, publishing several books on topics ranging from constitutional law to his experiences in nature.
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