Discovering the letters of Justice William O. Douglas

I was sorting through some books in my closet yesterday, and I discovered a fantastic book which drew me away from my regular reading: The Douglas Letters: Selections from the Private Papers of William O. Douglas, edited by Melvin I. Urkofsky. William O. Douglas was a brilliant, contrarian Associate Justice on the Supreme Court as well as a transformative environmentalist and New Dealer who crusaded against rampant speculation and corruption in the financial industry. His writing is insightful and often hilarious. Here are a few samples:

To Ramsey Clark, 4/28/70:

On my visit to Baghdad, I went to the University with my interpreter to see what books, if any, they had on our Constitution or Bill of Rights or Jefferson, Madison, democracy, etc.

That library was bare on those subjects. So when I returned, I prepared what I called the Douglas Eight Foot Shelf which I thought should be in every underdeveloped nation. I thought then - and still think - that those ideas are more important than military missions.

To Max Radin (professor at Berkeley Law School), 5/27/46:

…If you are willing, I will ask you to find me a law clerk each year….I need not only a bright chap, but also a hard-working fellow with a smell for facts as well as for law. I do not want a hide-bound, conservative fellow. What I want is a Max Radin - a fellow who can hold his own in these sophisticated circles and who is not going to end up as a stodgy, hide-bound lawyer. I want the kind of fellow for whom this work would be an exhilaration, who will be going into teaching or into practice of the law for the purpose of promoting the public good. I do not want to fill the big law offices of the country with my law clerks….

To the Wall Street Journal, 10/16/78

To the Editors:

Notice of my demise has been emanating from several sources recently, not least of which is your Journal.

Please be advised that I am today joining the ranks of citizens known as octogenarians and I assure you that I was never in a position to be resurrected in order to achieve such standing.

To Edward L.R. Elson, 12/7/77:

…Concerning my funeral arrangements…From my hobo days, I knew the famous songwriter Woody Guthrie who wrote a song called “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” It reflects not a socialist dream of mine, but many of the freedoms that are explicit or implicit in the Constitution, such as the right to move from place to place to look for a job or establish a new home, and the right to move interstate without payment of a fee, as some states within the last thirty years have tried to impose. In other words, it expresses the vagrancy issue as I have expressed it and as it has become in-grained in the law. (See my opinion in Papachristou et al v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 [1972].)

To Peter K. Westen (Douglas’ law clerk, now a highly-respected professor at the University of Michigan Law School), 10/1/68:

(After chewing him out for various mistakes): You might think these things over, because the first case we have to dispose of when I get back is the case of P.K. Westen.

Ryan McCarl
Attorney | Writer | Educator