William O. Douglas: The Gadfly of Washington

The Honorable Mary E. Fairhurst & Andrew T. Braff, William O. Douglas: The Gadfly of Washington, 40 Gonz. L. Rev. 259 (2005).

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Socrates believed his destiny involved a great calling, and Julia Fisk Douglas, William Orville Douglas’s mother, thought the same of “her little Treasure.”  Having single-handedly nursed her ailing twenty-two-month-old son back to health by massaging his atrophied legs, she believed God had spared her tiny Orville for some noble purpose, which in her mind was to be President of the United States.  Little did she know how close he would come, or that his libertarian philosophy, born in the foothills of the Cascades and nurtured by the worldview she created for him, would guide this “modern gadfly” to become the longest serving and most prolific dissenter in the history of the Supreme Court.  Douglas was a voice for populist reform from Wall Street to the streets of Birmingham, and a rich target for those who would use impeachment instead of hemlock to prevent the so-called “corruption” of an institution.

Douglas’s story is one of personal achievement, where perceptions and obstacles faced early in life contributed to his fierce independence. His father, a Presbyterian minister, died when he was six.  Though he had a life insurance policy, his mother hid their modest financial situation. The children received second-hand clothes as Christmas presents, and Douglas worked in a series of odd jobs throughout his early life to help support the family.  Although he received a scholarship to Whitman College, he worked to pay for living expenses and gave a portion to his mother.  Growing up in Yakima, Washington, this work frequently involved the seasonal fruit harvest, where he associated with itinerant workers, including members of the Industrial Workers of the World–better known as the ‘Wobblies.’  Social class became and remained central to Douglas’s dichotomized world-view, with members of the “Establishment” constantly evoking his ire. Court ally Hugo Black would later remark: “I suspect that [Douglas] must have come into this world with a rushand that his first cry must have been a protest against something he saw at a glance was wrong or unjust.”  To Douglas, the actions of the “Establishment,” which frequently included members of the church, big business, the newspapers, or the wealthy, often contributed to the injustice characterizing the downtrodden.  His boyhood heroes became populist California Republican Governor, Hiram Johnson, and Idaho Senator William E. Borah, both of whom defended minorities and the poor and attacked entrenched establishmentarians….Read More

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