Apr. 4 1939—Two weeks after President Roosevelt nominates SEC chairman (and former Yale law professor) William O. Douglas to the Supreme Court, the Senate confirms the nomination by a 62-4 vote. On the Court from 1939 until 1975, Douglas is the longest-serving justice in history.
In his 2003 New Republic review of a biography of Douglas (Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, by Bruce Allen Murphy), Seventh Circuit judge Richard A. Posner offers this succinct summary of Douglas’s judicial career: “For Douglas, law was merely politics.” Here’s Posner’s colorful fuller assessment: “Apart from being a flagrant liar, Douglas was a compulsive womanizer, a heavy drinker, a terrible husband to each of his four wives, a terrible father to his two children, and a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible, and at times unethical Supreme Court justice who regularly left the Court for his summer vacation weeks before the term ended. Rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, and devoured by ambition, he was also financially reckless—at once a big spender, a tightwad, and a sponge—who, while he was serving as a justice, received a substantial salary from a foundation established and controlled by a shady Las Vegas businessman.”
As Posner acknowledges, one can, of course, “be a bad person and a good judge, just as one can be a good person and a bad judge.” By the evidence, Douglas was both a terrible person and a terrible judge.
Apr. 6 1994—Justice Harry Blackmun announces his impending retirement after 24 years on the Court. His majority opinion in Roe v. Wade (1973) is rivaled only by Dred Scott as the worst opinion in Supreme Court history. As one of Blackmun’s own former clerks, Edward Lazarus (who described himself as “someone utterly committed to the right to choose [abortion]” and as “someone who loved Roe’s author like a grandfather”), aptly put it, “As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible.” Also from Lazarus: “Justice Blackmun’s opinion provides essentially no reasoning in support of its holding. And in the almost 30 years since Roe’s announcement, no one has produced a convincing defense of Roe on its own terms.” (My June 2005 Senate testimony (in parts 1 and 2) presents additional criticisms, including from other supporters of legal abortion, and explains why abortion policy needs to be restored to its rightful place in the democratic political processes.)
Apr. 7 1969—Justice Thurgood Marshall’s majority opinion in Stanley v. Georgia declares that the First Amendment forbids criminalizing the possession of concededly obscene material. Marshall blithely distinguishes away the Court’s previous categorical statements that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. Stanley, Marshall grandiosely proclaims, is asserting “the right to satisfy his intellectual and emotional needs in the privacy of his own home.” Yep, that carefully captures what viewing obscenity is all about. (Three justices, including Brennan, decline to join Marshall’s opinion and instead separately find a Fourth Amendment basis for vacating Stanley’s conviction.)
Apr. 8 2005—A split Ninth Circuit panel, in an opinion by notorious activist judge Stephen Reinhardt (see This Week entry for Mar. 27), rules in a habeas case (Musladin v. Lamarque) that under clearly established Supreme Court law a defendant on trial for murder was deprived of his right to a fair trial by an impartial jury when the trial judge permitted family members of the victim (or, as Reinhardt insists on referring to him in quotes, the “victim”) to wear buttons bearing the deceased’s photograph. In 2006, a mere two months after oral argument, the Supreme Court (in Carey v. Musladin) unanimously reverses the Ninth Circuit.
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.