Lives of the American Century
The Court Years By William O. Douglas Random House, $16.95
THERE WAS GREAT PURITY in William O. Douglas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975. Douglas stands a lonely figure in the drafty pantheon of recent American heroes. Yet even near the end of his life, when others had conferred on him an almost ethereal mantle of rectitude, he scarcely seemed to notice. A classic though entirely atypical Westerner, Douglas seemed intent only on getting the job done, the wrong righted, and the next case summoned before the court.
Douglas had almost finished the second volume of his memoirs when he died on January 19, 1980; his editors have just released The Court Years, his story of life on the bench. There is little sentiment; there are many facts, several insights. Not a page-turner, or even a "pageant-of-history" in vivid colors, it demands to be taken seriously as the final document of a man who did so much to shape American society--almost always for the better.
Douglas himself became a more influential figure when President Roosevelt nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1939, but the memoirs of this period suffer in comparison to the earlier volume (Go East Young Man: The Early Years). Born in a small town in Washington State, Douglas hopped a freight car and hoboed all the way to New York City, where he stumbled into Columbia Law School. He worked briefly in corporate law before Joseph Kennedy Sr. tapped him to be his successor as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. At age 40, he moved on to the Supreme Court. Douglas's work no doubt became more significant in his 36 years on the bench, but the reminiscences of a rambunctious youth make for better reading.
The Court Years nevertheless says important things about our political and judicial leadership, and, of course, about the author. Douglas emerges as an impassioned loner, fiercely dedicated to his causes yet just as seriously committed to allowing his fellow justices their causes as well. He is almost a cowboy justice, set apart from those he calls "the proselytizers." Though he never says so outright--he couches all criticism of former justices in the most diplomatic phrases--he never liked these proselytizers, the most celebrated being Harlan Stone, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfurter. Douglas viewed the justice's job differently, less an evangelist than a workman who makes up his mind, then goes home.
"America has long been and remains a very conservative nation," this liberal realizes early on, and he sets his progressive goals accordingly. Thus, he insists that he merely tried to preserve the rules set down by the founding fathers. Hardly radical, he was downright reactionary, he says, turning all the way back to the year the constitution was written:
The usual way of stating the difference was that one school was for "balancing" the need for, say, free speech against the need for law and order. The Frankfurter school was for "balancing." Black and I thought that all the "balancing" had been done by those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They had set aside certain domains where all government regulation was banned. When it came to certain activities, the Constitution had taken government off the backs of men.
For all the protestations, however, Douglas knew that he is not conservative at all. In fact, he says in the first sentence of the book: "It seemed to me that I had barely reached the Court when people were trying to get me off." That these Babbits would make such an effort--and make it repeatedly--is hardly surprising. Douglas never hesitated to jar public opinion; he waded in the thicket of controversy throughout his career and, several times, nearly lost his job because of it.
HE DID NOT ALWAYS WIN, and Douglas lays his failures, as well as an occasional mistake, out for all to see. In June, 1953, Douglas issued a stay in the execution of Julius and Ethel