This Day in Supreme Court History—November 12, 1975

On this day in 1975, Justice William O. Douglas retired. Appointed in 1939, Douglas’s thirty-six years on the Supreme Court made him the longest serving justice in U.S. history.

The brilliant, irascible, and often controversial justice grew up in Yakima, Washington. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1925, he briefly practiced law before joining the law school faculty at Columbia and then Yale. In 1936 he left Yale to serve on the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commision; a year later he became SEC chairman. Franklin Roosevelt appointed Douglas to the Supreme Court in 1939. At age 40, he was the second-youngest person ever appointed to the Court.

Douglas stood out on the Court for his aggressive defense of civil liberties. Along with Justice Hugo Black, he insisted–usually in dissent–that anti-communist policies of the McCarthy Era violated the First Amendment. He wrote the opinion for the Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down a statute prohibiting the use of contraception as a violation of a constitutionally recognized right to privacy. (Douglas famously located the right to privacy in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights.)

His written opinions tended to brisk and bracing. He showed little patience or interest in the careful parsing of doctrine. He painted with broad, bold brushstrokes. His critics derided his style as a failure of judicial craft–and even his supporters often wished he would make more of an effort with the legal reasoning of his opinions. He could write stirring prose when he was moved to do so. “A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” he wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949). “It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging.”

Douglas’s final years on the Court were difficult. His relations with his colleagues, which were never smooth, grew increasingly strained. In 1974 he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed. The other justices finally had to persuade him to step down. President Gerald Ford then filled his seat with John Paul Stevens. Douglas lived for five more years after leaving the bench. He died in 1980 at the age of 81.

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