William O. Douglas

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William O. Douglas
Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
From: April 15, 1939 – November 12, 1975
Nominator Franklin Roosevelt
Predecessor Louis Brandeis
Successor John Paul Stevens
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Mildred Riddle (1923–1953)
Mercedes Hester Davidson (1954–1963)
Joan Martin (1963–1966)
Cathleen Heffernan (1967–death)
Religion Presbyterian

William Orville Douglas (1898-1980) was the longest serving Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in history, remaining on the bench for 36 years. Appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Douglas had been a law professor at Yale and Columbia University. Douglas is considered to have been one of the smarter Supreme Court Justices in history,[1] but also one of the most activist.[2] He is an example of how a Justice can become increasingly liberal the longer he remains on the Supreme Court.

Justice Douglas holds the record for the most opinions written on the U.S. Supreme Court. He wrote in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson:
"The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State... Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other-hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly. ... We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being ... When the state encourages religious instruction ... it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe ... We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion. We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion."[3]

But by the end of Justice Douglas' career in the 1970s, he had become hostile to everything religious and conservative. The future President Gerald Ford even felt compelled to attempt to impeach Douglas while Ford was a congressman. Douglas remained on the bench too long for even his liberal colleagues, and in Douglas' final year on the Supreme Court his colleagues refused to issue opinions in which Douglas was the deciding vote.


Douglas justified a famous work of pornography[4] as "more significant and moral" [5] than Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's Sin, Sex and Self-Control. Douglas describes the two books in terms of moral equivalence:

The search for the moral in Fanny Hill is clothed in erotic passages which seem to equate morality with debauchery as far as the general public is concerned. At the same time, Dr. Peale’s book is punctuated with such noble terms as "truth," "love," and "honesty."


  1. http://www.alandershowitz.com/publications/docs/WildBill.html
  2. "I don't follow precedents, I make 'em." (William O. Douglas, quoted by R. A. Posner, New Republic, 24 February 2003.)
  3. Justice Robert Jackson cynically thought that Justice Douglas was pandering to the Catholic vote in this opinion in order to run for president. "After commenting on the lack of difference that he viewed between this case and McCollum v. Board of Education, yet with two different results from Douglas, he wrote: 'Today’s judgment will be more interesting to students of psychology and of the judicial processes than to students of constitutional law.' For Jackson, his colleague appeared to be taking this proreligion position because of his thoughts about the need to win the support of a Catholic constituency for a possible run for the presidency later that year."[1]
  4. Fanny Hill ... the thoughts and experiences of a common prostitute
  5. …I firmly believe that Fanny Hill is a moral, rather than an immoral, piece of literature. In fact, I will go as far as to suggest that it represents a more significant view of morality than is represented by Dr. Peale’s book Sin, Sex and Self-Control.