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WILD BILL by Bruce Allen Murphy


The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas

by Bruce Allen Murphy

Pub Date: March 11th, 2003
ISBN: 0-394-57628-4
Publisher: Random House

Cogent biography, at once admiring and damning, that amplifies and corrects the record left by the controversial Supreme Court justice in his memoirs.

Much in that record was true, writes Murphy (Civil Rights/Lafayette Coll.). Yes, rural Washington–bred William O. Douglas (1898–1981) arrived at Columbia Law School smelling of sheep. Indeed, Douglas’s apparently unassuming demeanor concealed a brilliant legal mind. He really did prefer the forest to the city and, it sometimes seemed, animals to people. His qualities took him far. Douglas had to scramble at first to compete with the children of privilege in Wall Street law firms and the corridors of the Ivy League, but he quickly made a name for himself as a legal scholar. He attained even greater recognition when he gave up a Yale professorship at the height of the Depression to take over the new Securities and Exchange Commission and ride herd over corporate America. Appointed to the Court by FDR in 1939, Douglas served on the bench for 36 years, attracting a legion of enemies and surviving four impeachment campaigns, at least one orchestrated by his nemesis, Richard Nixon. Douglas minimized his political skills in the autobiographies Of Men and Mountains (1950) and Go East, Young Man (1974), and Murphy’s chronicle is most valuable in showing how he adeptly played his own version of hardball to retain position and power. Though a liberal saint, the justice was evidently not a very nice man, especially when it came to crediting others for their help. Although an indifferent writer given to clichés (“the atmosphere in the school became palpably electric”), Murphy is a careful researcher; his portrait of Douglas is both thorough and critical. Dark side notwithstanding, Douglas emerges from these pages as a far better jurist and citizen than most of the justices who have followed him.

A welcome contribution to legal and judicial history.