Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on William O. Douglas

The following is a transcript of a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at the Sierra Club’s National Convention and Expo on September 10, 2005 in San Francisco. Kennedy received the Sierra Club’s William O. Douglas Award on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

I want to tell you how proud I am to accept the William O. Douglas Award. Two of my most poignant memories as a child involved Justice Douglas.

One of them was when I was 11 years old. I did a 20-mile hike with my little brother David and with Justice Douglas and my father, which was a bird-watching hike on the C & O Canal, which he played a critical role in protecting. We started at four o’clock in the morning and walked all day. Then I did a ten-day pack trip with him. He took my whole family up to Olympic Range and the San Juan Peninsula and went camping for almost two weeks when I was eight years old.

Justice Douglas had a very strong relationship with my family. My grandfather brought Justice Douglas into public life and gave him his first job at the SEC as his deputy and then got Franklin Roosevelt to appoint him to run the SEC and played a critical role in getting him appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court. He said that his relationship to my grandfather was a father-son relationship. When my father was 18 years old, Justice Douglas took him for a walking tour of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and all the Asian Soviet Republics. They were the first Westerners to enter Soviet Asia after the 1917 revolution. They had an extraordinary trip, and Justice Douglas wrote a book about it.

He was our greatest environmental jurist. He had a very, very close relationship with my family. As an attorney, I think the case that was the most important was Sierra Club vs. Morton, where he actually said that he believed the trees should have standing to sue [applause]. There is nobody in American history that I more admire than him. What he understood, which is what I think more and more people are understanding, is that protecting the environment is not about protecting the fishes and the birds for their own sake. It’s about recognizing that nature is the infrastructure of our communities, and we must meet our obligation as a generation, as a civilization, as a nation, to create communities for our children that provide them with opportunities for dignity and enrichment and good health.

Suggested Reading List

Selected Works by William O. Douglas

An Almanac of Liberty, Doubleday and Co., NY, 1954.

The Douglas Letters, Ed. Melvin I. Urofsky, Little, Adler & Adler, Bethesda, MD, 1987.

A Wilderness Bill of Rights, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1965.

Go East, Young Man, Random House, NY, 1974.

My Wilderness: The Pacific West, Doubleday and Co., NY, 1960.

My Wilderness: East to Katahdin, Doubleday and Co., NY, 1961.

Nature’s Justice – Writings of William O. Douglas. Ed. James O. Fallon. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2000.

Of Men and Mountains, Harper, NY, 1950.

The Right of the People, Doubleday & Company, NY 1958.

Russian Journey, Doubleday & Company, NY, 1956.

Strange Lands and Friendly People, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1951.

West of the Indus, Doubleday & Company, NY, 1958.

Biographies & Selected Books

Feldman, Noah. Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices. Twelve, New York, 2010.

Hulst, Thomas R. The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas, iUniverse, New York, 2004.

Murphy, Bruce A. Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas. Random House, New York, 2003.

Simon, James F. Independent Journey: The Life of William O. Douglas. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980.

Sowards, Adam M. The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglas and American Conservation. Corvallis, OSU Press, 2009.

Wasby, Stephen L. He Shall Not Pass This Way Again: The Legacy of Justice William O. Douglas. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 1990.

Selected Articles & Published Materials

Urofsky on Murphy, “Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas

Mull, Robert W. “The Curious Story of a Famous but not a Favorite Son” Columbia Magazine of Northwest History Summer 1987.

Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727. Supreme Court. 19 Apr. 1972. Click here to read.

Supreme Court Historical Society Publications. 1990 Yearbook. “Remembrances of William O. Douglas on the 50th Anniversary of his Appointment to the Supreme Court.” 1990

Zion, Sydney. “Bill Douglas.” The Nation 2 Feb. 1980.

Douglas on global perspectives

Douglas discussing the importance of global perspectives, from 1957 interview.

“The trips were unconventional.  For the most part I kept out of the lanes of tourist travel.  While I saw some of the sights and visited the capitals, I spent most of my time in the mountains and villages, traveling on foot, by horseback, or by jeep and stopping to talk with most of the goatherds and peasants I met along the way.  I usually carried complete camping equipment with me, put my bedroll down in or near a village at night, and sat up late discussing problems with the villagers or a local khan or kalantar.  In a word, I spent most of my time with the common people of these countries, rather than with officialdom.”
—Strange Lands and Friendly People (1951)

“Our journey across Afghanistan might well be called “Adventures in Friendship.” Never has adversity worked so strongly against a traveler; never has one been so warmly and generously received along the highways and byways. Trouble seemed to follow us all the way across the Hindu Kush and for hundreds of miles along the Russian border; and at the same time good Samaritans without number always were at hand to ease the way. History books tell us that Afghans are brigands. But our journey taught us that they are the friendliest people we ever knew.”
West of the Indus (1958)

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas with an aboriginal man holding a spear in Australia in 1959.
Australia, 1959

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas with a rabbi in Russia in 1955.
Russia, 1955

Douglas on freedom

Douglas discussing freedom, from 1957 interview.

“The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”
The Right of the People (1958)

“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
—September 10, 1976 letter to the Washington State Bar Association

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
—“The One Un-American Act,” Nieman Reports (1953)

“The dissent we witness is a reaffirmation of faith in man; it is protest against living under rules and prejudices and attitudes that produce the extremes of wealth and poverty and that make us dedicated to the destruction of people through arms, bombs, and gases, and that prepare us to think alike and be submissive objects for the regime of the computer.”
Points of  Rebellion (1969)

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas standing next to his horse in the wilderness in Aspen, Colorado in 1960.
Aspen, Colorado, 1960

Douglas on mountains and wilderness

Douglas discussing mountains, from 1957 interview.

“For myself it is a testing ground of my strength and endurance, a pitting of finite man against one of the great rigors of the universe.  A man – or girl – can get to know himself – or herself- on the mountain.  He gets to know his inner strength-the power of the soul to add to the power of the legs and lungs. In the solitude of the mountains – especially on the highest peaks- he is close to the heavens, close to the outer limits of the earthly zone.  It is for me easy, therefore, to have communion with God and to come to understand terms of my own being.”
—November 6, 1954 letter to a Seattle schoolgirl, The Douglas Letters (1987)

“As I walked the ridge that evening, I could hear the Chinook on distant ridges before it reached me.  Then it touched the sage at my feet and made it sing.  It brushed my cheek, warm and soft.  It ran its fingers through my hair and rippled away in the darkness.  It was a friendly wind, friendly to man throughout time.  It was beneficent…”
—Go East, Young Man (1974)

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hiking Olympic Beach in Washington state. Color.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hiking Olympic Beach in Washington state.

“Man must be able to escape civilization if he is to survive.  Some of his greatest needs are for refuges and retreats where he can recapture for a day or a week the primitive conditions of life.”

“If our wilderness areas are preserved, every person will have a better chance to maintain his freedom by allowing his idiosyncrasies to flower under the influence of the wonders of the wilderness.”

“Most glacial peaks exude an atmosphere of mystery.  There is wonderment at the forces that created it. The sheer beauty of basalt cliffs, glacial ice, snow-covered summits, and the blue sky is tranquilizing.  The clash and turmoil of civilization are far behind.  Now one faces the elemental forces-those that produced the great mountain, those that are in the process of leveling it.”

“…to be whole and harmonious, man must also know the music of the beaches and the woods.  He must find the thing of which he is only an infinitesimal part of and nurture it and love it, if he is to live.”

“If the sun sets clear, there is a moment before the mountain is swallowed up by the darkness when it is brightly luminous, incandescent, a startling ball of cold light.  When the full moon rises, the distant snow fields dimly reflect a golden glow.  Then the mountain seems so far, so remote, as to belong to another world.”
—My Wilderness: The Pacific West (1960)

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas looking out across the frontier.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas looking out across the frontier.

Fast facts on the writing life of William O. Douglas

  • Published over 40 books in his lifetime
  • Wrote hundreds of articles for a wide array of publications
  • Writing has been translated into over 10 languages
  • Prolific writing and publication career also included thousands of letters of correspondence, transcribed speeches, and countless other documents
The translated writing and books of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

Chronology

1929: First published article, “A Functional Approach to the Law of Business Associations,” appears in March issue of Illinois Law Review.

1942: Writes article “Press Must be America’s Wartime University” for July issue of Life magazine.

1948: Writes article “Way to Win Without War” for July issue of Reader’s Digest magazine.

1949: Horseback-riding accident results in 23 broken ribs and nearly ends Douglas’ life. Writes first book, the memoir Of Men & Mountains, during his recovery. Published in 1950 by Harper, it remains his most critically acclaimed.

1952: Writes article “The Black Silence of Fear” for January edition of The New York Times Magazine, warning of the perils of anti-Communist sentiment in America.

1955: Writes article “Man’s Inhumanity to Land” for May edition of American Forests. “Planless burning is one of the great destroyers of our wealth. When the woods burn… all living creature’s suffer.”

1958: Writes article “West from the Kyber Pass” and others for National Geographic, based on his road trip from Karachi to Istanbul with his wife Mercedes Hester Davidson, who served as car mechanic on the journey through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

1959: Publishes book West of the Indus (Doubleday) based on this road trip. It is one of several travelogues written by Douglas detailing his journeys through Central and Southeast Asia. Others include Beyond the High Himalayas (Doubleday, 1952) and North From Malaya (Doubleday, 1952), which covered a trip across then-Malaya, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, and Korea.

1962: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published. Douglas writes the liner notes for the Book of the Month edition.

The liner notes written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas for Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"

1964: In July Ladies Home Journal, publishes the article “Our Vanishing Wilderness.”

1965: Writes article “Animal Man Needs to Hike” in March issue of The New York Times Magazine. “The subconscious carries a heavy burden of our worries, concerns, and problems. On a long hike it functions free of additional tensions and pressures. And somehow or other it seems to unravel many a tangled skein of problems during a six-to-eight-hour hike. The process is a mystery, though I have experienced it again and again,” quote found in Keith Smiley’s “The Importance of Walking” booklet.

1967: Writes article “The Attack on the Right to Privacy,” in December issue of Playboy.

1970: Points of Rebellion is published by Random House, expressing the Constitutional rights of Vietnam War protesters. Passages such as “We must realize that today’s establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to its tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution” lead to a third call for Douglas to be impeached. 

1971: Writes article “Environmental problems of the oceans: the need for international controls” in spring issue of Environmental Law.

1971: Writes article “Pollution: an international problem needing an international solution ” in summer issue of Texas International Law Journal.

1974: Random House publishes what will be his final book: Go East, Young Man: The Early Years.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas at a book signing for his book "Go East, Young Man". Black and white

Fast facts on the personal life of William O. Douglas

  • Born October 16, 1898 in Maine Township, Otter Tail County, Minnesota
  • Mother, Julia Bickford, born 1872 in Maine Township, Minnesota, died 1941 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Father, William Douglas, born 1856 in Canada, died 1904 in Portland, Oregon
  • Married Mildred Riddle in 1923, divorced 1953
  • Married Mercedes Hester Davidson in 1954, divorced 1966
  • Married Joan Martin in 1963, divorced 1966
  • Married Cathleen Heffernan in 1966 (married until death of William O. Douglas)
  • Died January 19, 1980 at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland
  • Interred in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery

Chronology

1898: William Orville Douglas is born to the Reverend William and Julia Douglas in Maine, Minnesota.

1901: Three-year-old “Orville” is gravely ill from infantile paralysis, possibly polio. The Douglas family moves to Estrella, California.

1903: Family moves to Cleveland, Washington.

1904: Reverend Douglas, an itinerant minister described as a rigid Presbyterian, dies in a Portland, Oregon hospital. The widow Douglas moves her family to Yakima. William begins hiking to help him recover from a lingering weakness caused by a childhood illness. To compensate for his physical shortcomings, Douglas pushes himself to achieve academic excellence.

1906-1915: The Douglas household is a Spartan one. All three children work year-round to help support the family. Young Orville, as he was known, delivers newspapers, sets pins in a bowling alley, and works in an ice cream plant. None of these jobs has a more profound impact on him than working in the fields and orchards of Eastern Washington. As a result, he grows to know and respect the many different migrant groups and develops a profound compassion for society’s underprivileged.

Young William O. Douglas standing next to a tree in 1914.
Young William O. Douglas in the woods. 1914

1916: Graduates from Yakima High School as class valedictorian and is awarded a tuition scholarship by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

1920: Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman. Begins teaching English and Latin at Yakima High School.

1922: Enters Columbia Law School in New York City. After one year, he makes the staff of the prestigious Columbia Law Review. Among his classmates at Columbia are Thomas E. Dewey and Paul Robeson.

1923: Marries Mildred Riddle, a co-worker at Yakima High School and a native of La Grande, Oregon.

1925: Graduates second in his class from Columbia. Begins professional career at Wall Street law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine, and Wood. Teaches at Columbia on the side.

1926: Briefly returns to Yakima to practice law, then accepts a position teaching full-time at Columbia Law School.

1928: Accepts a teaching position at Yale University.

1929: With the onset of the Great Depression, Douglas becomes especially interested in the bankruptcy phenomenon in the United States and is soon recognized as a leading authority on the causes of bankruptcy.

1949: Horseback-riding accident results in twenty-three broken ribs and nearly ends Douglas’ life. Writes memoir Of Men & Mountains during his recovery, his most critically acclaimed book. He will write over 40 books in his lifetime.

1953: Divorces Mildred.

1954: Marries Mercedes Hester Davidson. Challenges Washington Post Editorial board to hike the C&O Canal route to save it from proposed highway project.

1955: Tours Russia. At the behest of family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, is accompanied by Robert F. Kennedy to internationalize the younger Kennedy’s personal experience.

1956: Douglas and his wife Mercedes Davidson accompany acclaimed biologists Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy to Alaska on the Sheenjek River Expedition.

1958: Leads a hike along a secluded and pristine section of beach in Olympic National Park to protest a future roadway into the area; the hike is successful and plans are abandoned. As a staunch protector of the natural environment, he helps define environmental activism in the United States and the international community before the term “environmentalism” appears in mainstream culture.

Justice Douglas dipping his toes in the water during the Olympic Beach hike in Washington state. 1958

1963: Divorces Mercedes. Marries Joan Martin.

1966: Divorces Joan. Marries Cathleen Heffernan. Douglas maintains his connection to the Pacific Northwest throughout his years in the nation’s capital. His first and fourth wives, Mildred Riddle and Cathleen Heffernan, hail from Oregon, and for many years he enjoys summers in and around a cabin in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, and later at his Goose Prairie residence in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

1974: Suffers a stroke on December 31.

1975: Retires from the Supreme Court on November 12 and is succeeded by John Paul Stevens. 

1980: Dies at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 19.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1939. Black and white.
Douglas in 1939

Fast facts on the political and professional life of William O. Douglas

  • B.A. in English and Economics from Whitman College, law degree from Columbia
  • Professor at Yale from 1928 to 1934
  • Spent six years at SEC (1934-1939), rising the ranks to Chairman
  • Sworn into office on Supreme Court on April 17, 1939, replacing Justice Louis D. Brandeis
  • Served as Supreme Court Justice for 36 years, 211 days, the longest tenure in American history
  • Wrote over 1,200 opinions while a Supreme Court Justice, a record
  • Also holds SCOTUS record for most dissenting opinions
  • Four impeachment attempts are the most ever for a sitting justice

Chronology

1916: Graduates from Yakima High School as class valedictorian and is awarded a tuition scholarship by Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

1920: Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman. Begins teaching English and Latin at Yakima High School.

1922: Enters Columbia Law School in New York City. After one year, he makes the staff of the prestigious Columbia Law Review. Among his classmates at Columbia are Thomas E. Dewey and Paul Robeson.

1925: Graduates second in his class from Columbia. Begins professional career at Wall Street law firm of Cravath, deGersdorff, Swaine, and Wood. Teaches at Columbia on the side.

1926: Briefly returns to Yakima to practice law, then accepts a position teaching full-time at Columbia Law School.

1928: Accepts a teaching position at Yale University.

1934: Accepts a position with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

1936: Is appointed commissioner of the SEC.

1937: Is appointed chairman of the SEC, replacing James Landis. Calling himself the “investors’ advocate” with an uncompromising attitude, “He took on the Holy of the Wall Street Holies, The New York Stock Exchange, and forced it to transform itself…” wrote Fred Rodell for American Mercury. His success in regulating the stock market did not make friends among the wealthy businessmen who had been used to having their own way on the Street. 
“Douglas found the New York Stock Exchange a private club and he left it a public institution.” — Robert Kenny, California Attorney General, 1944.

William O. Douglas in August, 1937, while serving as Chairman of the SEC.

1939: President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints Douglas to United States Supreme Court to fill the position vacated by Justice Louis D. Brandeis. At 40 years of age, he becomes one of the youngest men ever appointed to the Supreme Court.

1940: FDR considers him for vice president.

1944: FDR again considers Douglas for vice-presidential nomination, purportedly FDR’s first choice.

1948: Declines invitation of President Harry S. Truman to run for vice president.

1951: Dennis v. United States. Douglas establishes a reputation as an outspoken advocate of individual rights. His voting record in support of constitutionally guaranteed rights to personal freedom, privacy and equal treatment before the law is unprecedented. “He stood for the individual as no other justice ever has.” — Lucas Powe, Jr., former law clerk to William O. Douglas.

1955: Tours Russia. At the behest of family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy is accompanied by Robert F. Kennedy to internationalize the younger Kennedy’s personal experience.

1958: Leads a hike along a secluded and pristine section of beach in Olympic National Park to protest a future roadway into the area; the hike is successful and plans are abandoned. As a staunch protector of the natural environment he helps define environmental activism in the United States and the International community before the term “environmentalism” appears in mainstream culture.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and a group of hikers at Olympic beach in Washington state. Color.
The Olympic Beach hike in 1958. Douglas in background wearing white hat.

1965: Griswold v. Connecticut. The Supreme Court held that the statute was unconstitutional because it was a violation of a person’s right to privacy. In his opinion, Douglas stated that the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights have penumbras “formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and sub-stance,” and that the right to privacy exists within this area. Douglas at the urging of Justice William Brennan wrote the courts majority opinion.

1967: For the first time in Supreme Court history Douglas uses the word “ecology” to argue that no dam should be built on the Snake River in Udall v. Federal Power Commission showing that scientific perspectives ought to be considered, thus elevating this to the paramount question.

1970: The fourth attempt to impeach Justice William O. Douglas is organized by Representative Gerald Ford. Often a focal point of controversy, Justice Douglas openly criticizes American domestic and foreign policy throughout his tenure on the court.

1972: Sierra Club v. Morton. Douglas writes his iconic dissenting opinion defining why wild things deserve standing in the eyes of the law.

1974: Suffers a stroke on December 31.

1975: Retires from the Supreme Court on November 12 and is succeeded by John Paul Stevens.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas with straw hanging from his mouth at Goose Prairie in 1972. Black and white.
Goose Prairie, Washington. 1972.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) in the news

Yesterday, an old Supreme Court ruling that William O. Douglas was part of came back into the spotlight when Donald Trump declared a national emergency to build a wall on the southern border of the United States.

A president declaring a national emergency is far from unprecedented. It has “happened 60 times since the power was codified in 1976… most have been uncontroversial,” according an article written yesterday by Scott Horsley of NPR.

But, as detailed by Horsley, the circumstances around this declaration are different. Many politicians (and citizens) are unhappy, to say the least. Maybe they’re justified. The matter of the border wall emergency is likely to be decided in the courts.

Which brings us to Douglas: as outlined in The Daily Beast and The Washington Post, the 1952 Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer will likely play a key role in the arguments when that happens.

For a full synopsis of the case, go here. Essentially, steel workers were planning a strike during the Korean War. President Truman attempted to seize the steel mills and force them to continue production, citing steel as indispensable to the war effort, and claiming a work stoppage would “immediately jeopardize and imperil our national defense.”

With Douglas in the majority 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled against Truman. Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, stated, “[t]he President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of Berkeley Law School, writes that the courts “should quickly and emphatically hold that President Trump’s attempt to fund the border wall by declaring a national emergency is illegal and unconstitutional.” In Youngstown, he says, “The Court stressed that Truman’s actions violated the separation of powers and usurped the powers of Congress. Likewise, President Trump’s attempt to spend money for building a wall without congressional appropriation of funds for this purpose directly violates the Constitution.”

Additionally, Youngstown addressed the issue of property being taken, also relevant for Trump’s wall. Three Texas landowners have already filed a lawsuit after being told the wall would be built on their land. Justice Black wrote in Youngstown, “There is no statute that expressly authorizes the President to take possession of property as he did here. Nor is there any act of Congress… from which such a power can be fairly implied.”

Truman wasn’t happy about losing. In a 1972 interview with Eric Sevareid, Douglas recounted how afterwards the justices “all went and poured a lot of Bourbon down Harry Truman,” to try and cheer him up.

Times were a little different back then. It seems unlikely anyone will throw Trump a party if his border wall gets shot down in court.