Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—April 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.

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