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Who was William Douglas?

March 14, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

No one served as long on the U.S. Supreme Court as William Orville Douglas.

He took a seat on the bench in April 1939 and retired in November 1975. His tenure lasted 36 years, seven months and eight days, according to a biographical summary in the C&O Canal National Historical Park archives.

Douglas was born in Minnesota on Oct. 16, 1898. He had polio when he was young, which left him puny. But a hardy regimen of exercise, including hiking, made him stronger and fitter.

After earning his law degree from Columbia University in 1925, he joined a Wall Street law firm, according to a University of Pennsylvania profile. He taught and became chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission before he was named to the Supreme Court.

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"Douglas was thought to be pro-business, but he became known for his absolutist interpretation of the guarantees of freedom in the Bill of Rights," the profile said. "His opposition to any form of censorship made him a frequent target of political conservatives and religious fundamentalists."

Famous locally for walking the length of the C&O Canal in 1954 in an effort to save it, Douglas came back for annual celebrations of the hike.

After Douglas died on Jan. 19, 1980, a New York Times obituary described him as a First Amendment and individual liberties champion.

It quoted him as saying, "The essential scheme of our Constitution and Bill of Rights was to take Government off the backs of the people."

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