Dissent on Douglas

Independent Journey: The Life of William O.Douglas

by James F. Simon
Harper and Row, 503 pp., $16.95

The Court Years, 1939 to 1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas

by William O. Douglas
Random House, 434 pp., $16.95

Mr.Justice William O. Douglas served in the United States Supreme Court for the extraordinary term of thirty-six years—from 1939 until 1975—and he was probably more often on the right side than anyone else has been. His record in civil rights cases of all different sorts was particularly admirable. He wrote a great many important opinions and, unlike many other Justices, did almost all the writing himself. He also did much more writing off the bench than any other Justice—thirty books and dozens of speeches and articles, many about social and political justice. His enemies were the right enemies for a crusading liberal to have: he was hated by President Nixon, pursued, to the point of threatened impeachment, by Congressman Ford, and condemned on the bumper stickers of Birchers everywhere. And yet when we look back on his long and interesting career on the Court, aided by his own memoirs of those years, and by Professor Simon’s excellent, judicious, and admiring biography, we find not great distinction, but two puzzles. How could he have been so unlikable a man? Why did he make so little impact on constitutional law?

Simon does not intend to draw an unattractive portrait of his subject. He ends his book with an overall flattering assessment. But I doubt many readers of Simon’s evidence will share that opinion. Douglas did, it is true, have immense self-discipline and energy. He drove himself enormously hard, from his beginning as a poor and sickly boy in a tiny Washington town, into robustness and education, then into Columbia Law School and one of the most prominent law firms on Wall Street. As a rising young law-school professor, he soon came into prominence and the favor of Roosevelt and other New Dealers, into the chairmanship of the SEC, into the Supreme Court, and then—almost but not quite—into a vice-presidential nomination, in place of Truman, that would have made him president. But always fame was the spur, and the conclusion is tempting, suggested by well over a dozen incidents, that his final and long alliance with civil liberty and the cause of the poor was based at the start not on any moral conviction or natural sympathy, but on a much cooler assessment of where, on the day, the action was.

He was, in fact, insensitive, even indifferent, to other people. Simon’s appalling description of how he treated his subordinates, particularly his law clerks, stops just short of saying that most of them hated him, and contrasts instructively with the affection and fun and colleagueship that subordinates had in Felix Frankfurter’s company. Douglas’s relationships with women, particularly with the four women he married, make especially painful reading. Even his close friendships were sometimes, so it seems, alliances with those who would join in his coarse diatribes, loaded with obscenity, against those he thought were out to get him, chiefly Frankfurter and the “Harvard cabal,” as he called them, of Frankfurter acolytes. Or …

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Letters

An Exchange on William O. Douglas May 28, 1981