Bench Memos

This Day In Liberal Judicial Activism—January 12

1971—Justices Douglas, Brennan and Marshall dissent from the Court’s ruling (in Wyman v. James) that a state may condition a person’s receipt of benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program on that person’s permitting home visits by a caseworker. Douglas simplistically misstates the “central question” as “whether the government by force of its largesse has the power to ‘buy up’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” but the real difficulty comes in sorting out in a principled fashion why the answer to that overbroad question is in some circumstances yes and in others no.

Evidently oblivious to his own career of abusing power, Douglas, who clearly viewed himself as a great man, also quotes Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, [especially] when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” As Seventh Circuit judge Richard A. Posner has written (see This Day for April 4, 1939), Douglas was certainly a bad man: “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.… 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.” 

Ed Whelan — Ed Whelan is a leading commentator on nominations to the Supreme Court and the lower courts and on issues of constitutional law.

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