Justice William O. Douglas

William Orville Douglas served on the United States Supreme Court for 36 years and 209 days. The longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court, Douglas rose from humble beginnings, his family moving to California, and then from town to town in the West.  As a young man, Douglas worked at odd jobs to earn money for college and then law school, but finally found success on the faculty of Yale Law School, and as a member of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Franklin D. Roosevelt took a liking to Douglas, naming him chairman of the SEC in 1937.

Roosevelt nominated Douglas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939, where he became known for writing short, pithy opinions that relied more on philosophy and literature than more conventional "judicial" sources. Douglas was a self-professed outdoorsman and his love for the environment carried through to his judicial reasoning.

In the landmark environmental law case, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), Justice Douglas argued that "inanimate objects" should have standing to sue in court. He said: “The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."

During the 1960s, Justice Douglas was known for his extensive ties with the environmental movement. He wrote prolifically on his love of the outdoors. Justice Douglas is credited with saving the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and inspiring the effort to establish the area as a national park. His efforts helped preserve the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. In 1962, Douglas wrote a glowing review of Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, which awakened the nation to the dangers of pesticides and pollution, and facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972.

Justice Douglas survived an unsuccessful impeachment effort. He died at the age of 81 in 1980.

The William O. Douglas Wilderness, which adjoins Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, is named in his honor as are Douglas Falls in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.

Learn More
  • An Almanac of Liberty by William Orville Douglas (1954).
  • My Wilderness: The Pacific West by William Orville Douglas (1960)
  • A Living Bill of Rights by William Orville Douglas (1961)
  • Mr. Lincoln & the Negroes: The Long Road to Equality by William Orville Douglas (1963).
  • A Wilderness Bill of Rights by William Orville Douglas (1965).
  • The Three Hundred Year War: A Chronicle of Ecological Disaster by William Orville Douglas (1972)
  • Go East, Young Man: the Early Years: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas by William Orville Douglas (1974)
  • The Supreme Court and the Bicentennial: Two Lectures by William Orville Douglas (1978)
  • The William O. Douglas Inquiry Into the State of Individual Freedom
  • by William Orville Douglas, Harry S. Ashmore, William H. Alsup (1979)
  • The Court Years, 1939-1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas by William Orville Douglas (1980)
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