Justice William O. Douglas

Justice William O. Douglas joined the U.S. Supreme Court on April 17, 1939, replacing Justice Louis Brandeis. Douglas was born on October 16, 1898 in western Minnesota, but his family soon moved to the West Coast. He graduated with honors from Whitman College in Washington in 1920. Douglas later attended Columbia Law School, graduating second in his class in 1925. He briefly practiced at a law firm before taking a teaching position at Columbia Law School and then at Yale Law School.

In the mid-1930s, Douglas transitioned out of academia into government work. He joined the Securities and Exchange Commission under the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. Douglas eventually became the SEC Chairman in 1937.

On March 20, 1939, Roosevelt nominated Douglas to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on April 4 in a 62-4 vote, and he took the judicial oath about two weeks later at the age of just 40. Douglas would serve as a Justice for over 36 years, the longest tenure in Supreme Court history.

Douglas became known for his strong liberal views and commitment to civil liberties. He took a broad view of free speech under the First Amendment and fiercely opposed the Vietnam War. His support for environmental causes led to a quixotic dissent in which he argued that trees, rivers, and other natural features should have standing to sue in court, just as corporations can. An advocate of the New Deal before joining the Court, Douglas believed that the federal government had substantial power to regulate the economy. Thus, he favored a robust interpretation of antitrust laws.

Douglas penned perhaps his most memorable opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, finding that a state law forbidding the use of contraceptives violated the right of marital privacy. The text of the Constitution does not explicitly refer to privacy, but Douglas reasoned that various provisions in the Bill of Rights have "penumbras" that imply a constitutionally protected "zone of privacy." Griswold helped lay the foundation for key decisions involving abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. However, the Court would shift from the "penumbras" theory toward a reliance on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

At the end of 1974, Douglas suffered a severe stroke. He retired from the Court on November 12, 1975 and was replaced by Justice John Paul Stevens. Douglas died on January 19, 1980 in Bethesda, Maryland and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Selected Opinions by Justice Douglas:

Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas (1974)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

The police power is not confined to elimination of filth, stench, and unhealthy places. It is ample to lay out zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.

Gottschalk v. Benson (1972)

Topic: Patents

The discovery of a novel and useful mathematical formula may not be patented.

Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to the assistance of counsel is not governed by the classification of the offense or by whether a jury trial is required.

Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966)

Topic: Voting & Elections

A state violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Topic: Due Process; Abortion & Reproductive Rights

A state law forbidding the use of contraceptives violates the right of marital privacy, which is within the penumbra of specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights.

Brady v. Maryland (1963)

Topic: Due Process; Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

Suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused who has requested it violates due process when the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.

Cooper v. Aaron (1958)

Topic: Role of Courts; Equal Protection

State officials have a duty to obey federal court orders resting on the Supreme Court's considered interpretation of the Constitution. Also, state support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds, or property cannot be squared with the Equal Protection Clause.

Commissioner v. P.G. Lake, Inc. (1958)

Topic: Taxes

Consideration received for an assignment of an oil payment right was taxable as ordinary income, rather than a long-term capital gain, when the present consideration received by the taxpayer was paid for the right to receive future income, rather than for an increase in the value of the income-producing property.

Williamson v. Lee Optical, Inc. (1955)

Topic: Due Process

The Due Process Clause no longer should be used to strike down state laws regulatory of business and industrial conditions because they may be unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.

Berman v. Parker (1954)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

Public ownership does not need to be the sole method of promoting the public purposes of a community redevelopment project. It is not beyond the power of Congress to utilize a private agency for this purpose, or to authorize the taking of private property and its resale or lease to the same or other private parties as part of such a project.

Zorach v. Clauson (1952)

Topic: Religion

A program did not violate the First Amendment when it permitted public schools to release students during school hours, on written requests of their parents, so that they may leave the school buildings and grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises.

Terminiello v. Chicago (1949)

Topic: Free Speech

Freedom of speech, although not absolute, is protected against censorship or punishment unless it is shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York (1949)

Topic: Equal Protection

It is no requirement of equal protection that all evils of the same genus be eradicated or none at all.

U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948)

Topic: Antitrust

Vertical integration of producing, distributing, and exhibiting motion pictures is not illegal per se. Its legality depends on the purpose or intent with which it was conceived, or the power that it creates and the attendant purpose or intent.

Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co. (1948)

Topic: Patents

Patents cannot issue for the discovery of the phenomena of nature. If there is to be an invention from such a discovery, it must come from the application of the law of nature to a new and useful end.

U.S. v. Causby (1946)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

Flights of aircraft over private land that are so low and frequent as to be a direct and immediate interference with the enjoyment and use of the land are as much an appropriation of the use of the land as a more conventional entry on it.

Girouard v. U.S. (1946)

Topic: Religion; Immigration & National Security

A foreign national who is willing to take the oath of allegiance and to serve in the army as a non-combatant but who, due to religious scruples, is unwilling to bear arms in defense of the U.S. may be admitted to citizenship.

Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943)

Topic: Taxes

A state may not impose a tax for the enjoyment of a right granted by the U.S. Constitution.

Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson (1942)

Topic: Equal Protection

Strict scrutiny of the classification that a state makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.

U.S. v. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., Inc. (1940)

Topic: Antitrust

Agreements to fix prices in interstate commerce are unlawful per se under the Sherman Act, and no showing of so-called competitive abuses or evils that the agreements were designed to eliminate or alleviate may be interposed as a defense.