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This Day in Supreme Court History

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In further proof that God loves the United States, on this day 38 years ago, Justice William O. Douglas retired from the Supreme Court.  Ed Whelan, quoting Judge Richard Posner, describes Justice Douglas thusly:

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.


I might add that Douglas, for all his flaws, did not join Marshall and Brennan in believing that the death penalty is a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment. Ironically, he was succeeded by a far better man and a better (on most things) judge, John Paul Stevens, who, maddeningly, got this fundamental point wrong.

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