Supreme Court Justice William Douglas Sure Loved His Books

The day one of the most famous justices lost his cool--and one of his books.
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William Douglas at his office desk in 1963 (AP Images)

I am late getting to an excellent book titled In Chambers: Stories of Supreme Court Law Clerks and Their Justices, which was edited by Todd C. Peppers and Artemus Ward. It's interesting for many different reasons, not the least of which as a reminder of how much of a bastion of elitism the Court has always been. You should read it if you are interested in legal history, or in learning more about the way the justices lived and worked, or even if you want to know why the Court still sometimes acts as though it were the 19th Century.

There is virtually nothing in the book about the substance of the Court's work. The vast majority of these clerks evidently still swear by the code of silence. But there is a great deal about what the justices read when they weren't reading briefs. Turns out that Justices Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter were maniacal about their books. And among the short stories there is an instant classic about Justice William O. Douglas written by Bruce Allen Murphy, who also authored  "Wild Bill," a famously critical biography of the justice.

As Murphy chronicles both in this passage and in his book, Douglas was for long stretches of his life a generally unhappy man who was often cruel to his law clerks and many other people in his life. Murphy attributes this meanness to Douglas' failure to become in life what he wanted most to be--president of the United States. It is in this context that this anecdote unfolds. From page 187 of "In Chambers":

Law clerks in this era all learned that none of Douglas' rules were ever to be ignored. "Brrraaaccckkk! Brrraaaccckkk!" rang the buzzer one day in 1965, summoning Jerome B. Falk, Jr. "Did you write in this volume?" asked a furious Douglas, his voice quivering with anger as he held up a United States Reports volume containing Supreme Court opinions.

"No sir," responded the concerned young clerk.

"I'm relieved to hear that," said the still angry justice. "Books are treasures. They are temples of the intellect. They must be cherished and protected. I couldn't imagine that you were the sort of person who would write in a book."

That said, Douglas turned, as was his practice, and pitched the book in the direction of the extended window seat behind him, where Harry Datcher would find them for reshelving at the end of the day. But Douglas was so pumped with adrenaline after his fiery speech that he overshot the seat and instead fired the book right out of the open office window to its loud, cracking demise on the concrete patio a floor below.
Falk spun to return to his desk, simply acting as if the incident had never happened, and book preservation was never spoken of in the office again.

You just can't make up stuff like that. Not just Douglas's rant or the physical comedy at the end of the shtick (can't you see, in your mind's eye, Peter Sellers playing Douglas in the scene?) but the way in which Falk reacted (or didn't react) to such a moment. I just hope that 50 years from now I'll be around to read about what sort of like-minded mischief is being made today by the current cast of characters over at the Supreme Court. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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