Anecdote of Judicial Ethics: William O. Douglas

I am thankful for many things this Thanksgiving Day weekend, among them is the easy access a library membership gives me to the archives of the Oregonian. The ethics of Supreme Court Justices have been in the news recently. An anecdote of Portland civil rights lawyers seeking undue influence more than fifty years ago, as reported by the Oregonian on page 6 of its September 1, 1970 edition, provides a somewhat comic perspective.

That summer, three men wearing business suits and carrying briefcases hiked six miles into the wilderness of central Washington State. Two were civil rights lawyers from Portland, Oregon, and the third was their law clerk. They had set out into the woods that day to find Justice William O. Douglas and make a direct appeal to him for a temporary restraining order on behalf of their clients.

The Supreme Court had just ended its term, and Justice Douglas was in Washington State on a ten-day camping trip near his summer home in Goose Prairie, more than ten miles from the nearest telephone. With assistance from U.S. Forest Service Rangers, who had spotted Justice Douglas’s campsite by plane, the lawyers were able to track down Justice Douglas and present their case to the Justice in a fifteen-minute oral argument, leaving a 1.5-inch thick petition for him to review.

Justice Douglas indicated a particular tree stump and told the lawyers, if they came back tomorrow, they would find his decision there. One of them came back the next day and found a single sheet of paper waiting for him on the designated stump. In a one-paragraph opinion, Justice Douglas issued his denial of their application.

Today, a camping Justice could likely be reached by cell phone. Imagine how often someone wants a piece of a Supreme Court Justice.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.