William O. Douglas
Longest Serving Supreme Court Justice in U.S. History
William Orville Douglas—the most famous and significant Yakimanian in this museum, was born in 1898 in Maine, Minnesota.
When he was two years old, he suffered from a serious illness that he believed was polio. Whether it truly was polio or something else, Douglas made a complete recovery.
When he was five years old, "Orville" moved with his family moved to California, then to Cleveland, Washington, at the south edge of the Yakima Valley.
His father died the following year in 1904, and the family moved to Yakima. Life was hard, both financially and physically. To help his mother support the family, he worked at various jobs while at school. Picking cherries and working alongside migrant workers, Douglas later said, inspired him to want to be a lawyer, and gave him a deep respect for minorities, laborers, and the natural environment—passions that would guide Douglas for the rest of his life. He said:
“I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the I.W.W's (Industrial Workers of the World) who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”
Douglas was a great student graduating as valedictorian from Yakima High School. He attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington and Columbia Law School, and went on to teach law at both Columbia and Yale.
He was recognized by President Franklin Roosevelt and was asked to serve on the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, then appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939 at the age of 40. He served on the Court until his retirement in 1975. FDR considered him as a possible vice-presidential running mate in 1944.
By all accounts he was not an easy person to get along with and was married four times. Judge Richard A. Posner, who was a law clerk for Douglas, described him as "a bored, distracted, uncollegial, irresponsible" Supreme Court justice, as well as "rude, ice-cold, hot-tempered, ungrateful, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed". That description is not born out by many of the other clerks Douglas had—51 in all.
His Supreme Court decisions were often controversial and Congressman Gerald Ford attempted, but failed, to start impeachment proceedings against him in 1970.
All of his life, Douglas was a dedicated environmentalist. He often played an active role in lobbying for the preservation and protection of wilderness across the United States. He was nicknamed “Wild Bill” as a result.
After his death, the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act designated the Cougar Lake Roadless area which adjoins Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State, as the William O. Douglas Wilderness.
Our exhibit recreates his Supreme Court office in Washington, D.C.; the contents of which were given to the museum following Douglas' death in 1980. The museum’s archives also hold material about his early life in Yakima, his controversial Supreme Court career, his writings, and his continuing legacy in environmental and civil rights law.