William Orville Douglas was born in 1898 in Minnesota to his Scottish Presbyterian father and his ambitious, encouraging mother. Despite the fact that her husband died when her son was six, Douglas’s mother encouraged her son towards success. She even had a speech she recited to him in which she “nominated him for the presidency.” She clearly had high hopes for her eldest child. Douglas spent many of his formative years in Yakima, Washington, where he took up hiking and eventually played basketball for his high school team. He, his brother, and his sister all worked to help support the family after the untimely death of their father.
After high school graduation, Douglas received a full tuition scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. In order to continue to support his family, he worked multiple jobs in addition to attending his classes. Douglas graduated from Whitman in 1920 and returned to Yakima to teach high school and coach the debate team. He then decided to pursue a career in law. In 1922, he was accepted to Columbia University in New York. He married Mildred Riddle, Latin teacher at the high school, in 1923; however, she stayed in Yakima and worked to send him money for school. Upon completion of law school, he worked for a Wall Street firm; however, he did not enjoy the chaotic 80-90 hour work-weeks. He returned to Yakima briefly and tried to set up a practice there, but it did not go well, and he returned to New York shortly thereafter. Eventually, in 1927, Columbia asked him to be a law professor for the university. He agreed and began teaching that year. The next year, Yale scooped him up, and Douglas continued to make a name for himself.
In 1934, Douglas left his position at Yale in order to join the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Douglas’s role was to do a study of protective committees--although, these committees were supposed to protect the investors, they instead protected the large companies that run Wall Street. Douglas eventually became Commissioner, and then Chairperson of the committee. He was known for his active presence in reforming the New York Stock exchange.
In 1939, when Justice Louis Brandeis resigned from the Supreme Court, President Roosevelt nominated Douglas to replace Brandeis. Douglas’s way of handling court decisions set a precedent, as his decisions were often short, and based on philosophical arguments rather than past political decisions or court history. Although he voted to maintain Japanese internment during WWII, Douglas eventually came to be known as a supporter of individual rights. In 1953, he ordered a temporary stay of execution for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, both of whom were convicted of selling the plans for the atomic bomb to Russia. However, his ruling was quickly overturned and the two were sentenced to death. Despite being a candidate for vice-presidential nomination, the democratic vice-presidential nomination went to Harry Truman in 1944.
Douglas was, and still is, the longest serving Supreme Court Justice, as he sat on the bench for a total of 36 years. He also holds the record for both most opinions written, as well as most dissenting opinions written. He has authored the most books of any Justice, as well as given the most speeches. Unfortunately, he also holds the records for most wives (he had four) and most divorces while on the Supreme Court bench (three).