THE BOOK OF JOB sounds the plaintive, "Oh, that mine adversary had written a book!" Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote 30 books, including two autobiographies. He had a host of adversaries to boot -- lawyers, fellow justices, Court watchers, and politicians. Douglas wrote enough books for them all! On four separate occasions certain of them tried to impeach him. Did he consider retiring? Quite the contrary. oHis adversaries stiffened his resolve to remain on the High Court. Establishing an all-time record of 36 years, he stayed on "until the last hound dog had stopped snapping at my heels."
The Court Years , rounding out the first volume, Go East, Young Man , of 1974, reveals a mind of remarkable range and versatility, a man consumed by ambition and beset by baffling contradictions. The Justice worked on this autobiography almost to the time of his death. Here and there one senses a belated spirit of forgiveness, even toward his ideological foe, Justice Felix Frankfurter, but none whatsoever toward his other arch-enemies, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
For a book of this genre the contents of The Court Years are strangely selective and organized. Instead of a running chronology of his private life, judicial career, and outside activities, its chapters read like a topical treatise: "Loyalty-Security Program," "Law Clerks," "The Press," "The Chief Justices," "Six Presidents," "The President and the Court." The work of a compulsive teacher, certain chapters include material pre-dating his Court years that would seem more appropriate in a textbook than in a volume of reminiscences. Law clerks receive equal coverage with the six presidents under whom Douglas served. Go East, Young Man devoted less than a page to his first wife; The Court Years practically ignores her three successors. Throughout, the book seems like a transcript of interviews (as indeed it may have been), minus the interrogator's queries.
One who picks up this autobiography expecting to be titillated by sensational disclosures of the Court's internal workings, as in The Brethren , will be disappointed. Its fascination lies in the colorful stories Douglas tells rather than the secrets he exposes. "The Court in my time," he writes, "always had amicable personal relations." Douglas' sense of forgiveness momentarily dulled his sense of history. Indeed, certain incidents reveal sharp conflicts, especially with Justice Frankfurter. Frankfurter "used his law clerks as flying squadrons against the law clerks of other justices and even against the justices themselves." Frankfurter harangued the Judicial Conference while Douglas relaxed in a comfortable chair or prepared notes for a forthcoming book.
One day in open court Freankfurter kept shouting to a lawyer, "Give me one case that stands for that proposition!" Finally, patience exhaused, Douglas leaned over and said to the bewildered advocate, "Don't bother to send Justice Frankfurter the list he wants; I'll be happy to do it myself." "For once," Douglas reports, "Felix stayed quiet."
Once Justices Sherman Minton and Tom Clark broke up a near fist fight when Frankfurter kept needling Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson with barbed jabs. Raising his fist, the Chief Justice shouted: "No son of a bitch can ever say that to Fred Vinson." Such outbursts belie Douglas' relaxed claim: "Though feelings often ran high, there was never a personal vendetta on the Court in my time."
Although Douglas' relations with Frankfurter were akin to those of Cain and Abel, he accorded him a place in his list of "most outstanding justices," which included Hugo Black, William Brennan, John Harlan, Charles Evans Hughes, Earl Warren, and Byron White Douglas' rating differs significantly from the 1970 evaluation by 65 law deans and professors of law, history, and political science. Both lists include Frankfurter in the category of "Great." The 1970 rating ranks Douglas "Near Great." Although singled out by others as "Great" in 1970, Harlan F. Stone, who was Douglas' law teacher at Columbia, is conspicuously omitted from his "all American team."
Justice Douglas considered the Court a part-time job. Four days were quite enough, leaving time to explore, to think, and write books, some of them widely acclaimed for literary distinction. To relieve boredom while hearing arguments of counsel, he wrote letters, researched cases, or scribbled dissents. No sharp line separates his books and judicial opinions. In both his role was that of publicist and polemicist. Douglas' sidelines were travel, camping and mountain climbing, at home and abroad. Because of his abiding compassion for the disadvantaged and profound distrust of power, he sought out and communed with common people. Harvard professor Thomas Reed Powell pinpointed his judicial approach: "The less favored in life will be more favored in law." Yet Justice Douglas deplored affirmative action that ignored merit, as in the Washington State Law School De Funis case.
Soon after Douglas' appointment, Chief Justice Hughes gave the newcomer some surprising advice: "You must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reason for supporting our own predilections." At the same time, having put his hand to the judicial plow, there shouldn't be any diversionary glances at other furrows. In 1944, however, professing lack of interest in becoming FDR's running mate, Douglas did nothing to discourage promotion of his candidacy. Stone and Frankfurter did not take seriously Douglas' feigning lack of political ambition. Nor does his biographer, James F. Simon.
As in the first volume of his autobiography, Douglas exploits poetic license. His daughter, Millie, alienated from her father since his first divorce, recalled that the Justice seemed incapable of getting his anecdotes right, "either telling stories that did not happen or not telling stories that did."
Although Douglas used the press to create the image of a devoted family man, the mother of Douglas' two childred "cured the nightmares and bathed the fevered brow." The Justice's first wife, Mildred, could not forget "28 years of devotion, loyalty and hard service." Yet she could be magnanimous and forgiving: "May God help you find it in your heart to forgive yourself, as your children and I do." Mildred may have hit upon the very thing Calvinistically-reared Douglas found most difficult to accomplish -- forgive himself.
Self-exposure in a score of books and a two-volume autobiography would seem to be ample, but not quite. New York Law School professor Simon's full-length biography corrects, complements, and supplements the self-portrait. fA full chapter is devoted to "Three Wives." Douglas himself practically erases four matrimonial ventures. Simon's engagingly written and profusely documented biography is the result of 3 1/2 years of research and interviews with friends, enemies, children, wives and the justice himself. The biographer did not have access to the court papers -- an indispensable source -- but he has penetrated every aspect of Douglas' varied and adventurous life with cool, yet sympathetic understanding. No interested reader or future biographer can safely dismiss this superb portrait.
Portrayed is a man of tantalizing ambiguity -- champion of human rights, but cruel to wives, callous to children, inconsiderate of colleagues, slow to recognize debts to law clerks or research assistants. Apparently, no one ever helped WOD. Alone, by high moral purpose and hard work, he triumphed. e"Easier to admire than to love," is Simon's overall appraisal. Like Louis D. Brandeis, the man he succeeded, Douglas passionately pursued causes pro bono publico , sometimes forgetting personal niceties lesser mortals take for granted.
For a man of his achievements and stature, Douglas could be incredibly petty. He apparently never forgave Justice Stone for passing him over and selecting in 1925 Alfred McCormack as his first law clerk. Without openly blaming Stone, "there was always the nagging question of the justice of the McCormack selection." Douglas, along with Black, refused to sign Chief Justice Stone's draft of a farewell letter to retiring Justice Owen J. Roberts, objecting to the conventionally gracious, if factually doubtful, line: "You have made fidelity to principle your guide to decision." Later, Douglas was the only member of the Court absent from Frankfurter's funeral service.
Despite personal shortcomings, highlighted by his adversaries, Justice Douglas gave vitality and viability to three basic American principles: separation of powers, federalism, and the Bill of Rights. He recalled his solution in 1941 of certain issues bitterly controversial in 1980: "Preparedness . . . no more stops war than the death penalty stops murders. Man is basically predatory and preparedness excites the base instincts that propel man to killing." Douglas waged a relentless campaign for conservation of an unpolluted environment, an enlightened approach to racial conflict, and tolerance of ideological and religious differences among men and nations.
The individual is freer in America today and maybe safer in the world because of the life and work of William O. Douglas.