Scope & Goals

William O. Douglas (1898-1980) is a product of the West, growing up in and around Yakima, Washington and attending Whitman College in Walla Walla before heading east to law school at Columbia in New York City. He briefly returned to Yakima to practice law before accepting a teaching position at Columbia and later at Yale.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him the third chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1937-1939. Later, FDR seriously considered Douglas as a candidate for vice president.

President Roosevelt appointed Douglas to the U.S. Supreme Court on March 20, 1939 and he remained a justice until he retired in 1975. At 40, he was one of the youngest justices ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  His 36-year service is the longest in Supreme Court history. He wrote more opinions and dissenting opinions, gave more speeches, and authored more books than any other justice. Douglas also holds the record for having the most wives (four) and the most divorces (three) while on the bench. The four attempts to impeach him were more than have been made on any other justice. Of the 112 Supreme Court justices to date, Douglas is the only member to serve from the Pacific Northwest. He was undeniably a powerful and controversial figure in U.S. history.

The primary objective of this project is to produce an hourlong documentary film and companion website weaving Justice Douglas’ life and writings in the context of wilderness and its importance to the human condition. His formative role in the conservation and environmental movement and its relationship to individual freedoms will be a fundamental theme. The relationship of his judicial legacy and his personal ties to the wilderness will be woven through a narrative of his writing and footage of him both in interviews and in nature. Archival video, in particular a 1972 Eric Severeid interview filmed on location at his residence in Goose Prairie, Washington, will be a key element. The Douglas collection at the Yakima Valley Museum will play a considerable role as well.

New video will bring his written words to life. Interviews with contemporary legal figures, political figures, and wilderness advocates will further shape the content of the film. His legal accomplishments can be charted in this context, in particular his categorical defense of individual liberties and fundamental privacy rights. Two exhaustive biographies have been written about Douglas, totaling 1,200 pages of text. Only a few dozen of these pages are devoted exclusively to his legal and personal relationship with the natural world. In 2009, Oregon State University Press published Adam Sowards’ The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglas and American Conservation. This comprehensive narrative details Justice Douglas’ formative work in the environmental movement. Long overdue, it is not considered a biography, but admirably fills the historical gap.

This is a story with a national footprint. It has issues that radiate far beyond U.S. borders. The land ethic and protection of wild lands have become defining issues across the planet. Douglas’ role in shaping the modern environmental movement and his rich career as a writer of, and advocate for, the wilderness will be brought to life in this documentary.

Newly appointed Supreme Court Justice William Orville Douglas, 1939 - Photo Courtesy of Library Of Congress

In his most famous environmental opinion, Sierra Club v. Morton, Douglas proposed pushing environmental law in new directions. The opinion galvanized conservationists, the Wilderness Society published the dissent in its magazine, Living Wilderness, calling it a “stirring dissent … (that) we regard as important judicial history.”

Citing USC law professor Christopher Stone’s provocative law review article, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, it gave formal voice to the "land ethic" advocated a generation earlier by Aldo Leopold, and in so doing this iconic opinion changed the debate.

Since 1972, both the federal government and several state governments have enacted laws that expressly allow citizens to bring suit to challenge certain agency decisions or to recover damages for injuries to the environment. These laws recognize that natural areas have value as such in their own right.

Sierra Club v. Morton 1972
Excerpt from dissenting opinion written by Justice Douglas:

The ordinary corporation is a “person” for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.  So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.
Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey, and camp or sleep there, or run the Allagash in Maine, or climb the Guadalupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico Superior in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away.
Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life which it represents will stand before the court-the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and the bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak.  But those people who have so frequented the places to know its values and wonders will be able to speak for the entire ecological community.
That, as I see it, is the issue of “standing” in the present case and controversy.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ joined.
DOUGLAS, J., BRENNAN, J. and BLACKMUN, J dissented
POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.    Source; JUSTIA.COM

“Douglas had this spark of freshness, always a new idea…  When he said how nice it would be if we could give inanimate things like rocks and trees standing in the Supreme Court cases, speaking from an environmental protections concept.  There aren’t very many who would do that, but Bill Douglas would…  His influence… in awaking our consciousness at an early day the value of our environment is one of his great contributions.”

Associate Supreme Court Justice Harold Blackmun, 1988 interview, Lowe Video