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William Orville Douglas

“Douglas Was The Only True Genius That I Have Ever Known”

At his death, Justice William Brennan said, “Douglas was the only true genius that I have ever known.” In 1975 when he retired William O. Douglas was also known as “the man who served on the U.S. Supreme Court longer than anyone else—36 years. Some called him the great defender of the oppressed, the champion of the right to dissent, and fighter for freedom of religion, speech, and the press, as well as for the rights of the accused and racial desegregation. He rejected precedent. At the same time, he outraged conservatives with his liberal views and four marriages. Some called for his removal from the Supreme Court. William Orville Douglas was born October 16, 1898, in Yakima, Washington. His father was a Presbyterian minister from Nova Scotia where his great-grandfather Colin Douglas arrived from Scotland in 1773. At age 4, William was stricken with polio. Two years later his father died. He studied law at Columbia University, became a Yale law professor at 32 and chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission at 39. At age 40, he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt. FDR offered Democrat politicians the names of Douglas and Harry Truman as his possible running mate in 1944. Douglas was rejected as too liberal. In 1948 Truman asked him to be his running mate. Douglas refused. On his death in Washington, D.C. on January 19, 1980, a Chicago Tribune editorial said, “Douglas was a man of epic stature. ...Often we have disagreed with him. ...We mark his passing with more than just respect, more than admiration. At a time when public life seems to be crowded with small men, the death of a great man leaves an emptiness that is hard to imagine soon being filled.”

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546