Justice William O. Douglas served on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than 36 years, longer than any other justice in American history. Famously liberal, he carved a deep and enduring path through American law, laying the foundation for the right to privacy and bolstering free speech, criminal defense and environmental rights. But his legacy as an environmental activist off the court may have been even more profound. 

Ninth Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown focuses on the justice’s environmental activism in her new book, “Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas — Public Advocate and Conservation Champion.” Historian Douglas Brinkley described the book as “environmental history at its monumental best” and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David M. Kennedy deemed it a “colorful and compelling book.” McKeown discussed the book, and the justice’s environmental activism, in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

“Citizen Justice”

M. Margaret McKeown, Potomac Books, 288 pp., $29.95

There are a lot of Douglas biographies, but yours is different. It focuses on his political activism. Why that focus?

Candidly, what I found in the archives at the Library of Congress and other archives across the country captivated me. The scope of Douglas’ lobbying, conservation and political activities was breathtaking. To begin, during his first decade on the court, he pursued political office. Later, he literally ran a one-man lobby shop from his chambers. And it was well documented: He was a prodigious note taker, letter writer and correspondent. That’s what really caught my eye — the national scope of his advocacy and what a huge difference he made across the country in different ways. But it also raised my ethical eyebrows as well.

Why?

Well, the idea that he would be affirmatively lobbying decision-makers — not just marching for saving a wilderness or mountaintop in Washington, but that he was consistently lobbying and cajoling the Park Service, the Forest Service, members of Congress and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was novel. When he got a bee in his bonnet about something, whether it was stopping a dam, or logging, or a mine, he was strategic and he went after it.

And he was effective. Because of his activism, he preserved the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, preserved the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, stopped the Kennecott copper mine in the North Cascades and so much more.

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That’s right. He had an effective formula. He would find an area that was threatened, organize a public protest or rally, form a committee of which he was often the chair, and he then coordinated with local environmentalists. And he didn’t give up. So many of these fights lasted years. He has a legacy that ranges from Alaska to the Pacific Coast to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and wilderness in Maine, Florida and Texas.

One of his first campaigns was to preserve the C&O canal tow path?

That really marked his awakening as a conservation advocate in 1954. The Washington Post supported a parkway project that would have destroyed the historic trail. Justice Douglas challenged the reporters to hike the entire 184 miles with him. They endured only part way but changed their editorial stance. Douglas is largely credited with preserving the canal. The C&O National Historical Park is the only national park ever “walked” into existence and the only one officially dedicated to an individual person.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

And he took the same approach closer to home on the Olympic Peninsula?

He opposed the extension of Highway 101 along the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the last undeveloped stretch of coastline on the West Coast. He invited a group of reporters to hike the coastline with him. And, with local conservationists and the ultimate support of the federal government, he stopped the construction of the highway.

And that’s a thing that you can applaud, but at the same time it’s also the part that makes you arch an eyebrow at a sitting justice leveraging the prestige of the court for a political purpose. So long as it’s a cause that you agree with it maybe doesn’t seem so offensive, but if it’s something that you don’t agree with, then you might take a different view of it.

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Exactly. And that’s why I approached Douglas a little differently because I looked at his efforts through the lens of judicial ethics. And obviously one of the biggest questions was his participation in Sierra Club v. Morton, a case pitting The Walt Disney Company and its planned ski resort against the environmentalists. He had been on the Sierra Club board while he was on the court, and he resigned, but he was still a life member and hiking and protesting with them right up to the time that the case came to the Supreme Court. He actually wrote to the Sierra Club saying he should resign from being a life member because a case, not any particular case, might come up. So, the chance to go back to the archives and piece together all the drafts, notes and correspondence was both amazing and enlightening.

And one of his last lobbying campaigns was a little closer to home?

He devoted a lot of energy over his last years lobbying to create a new wilderness area in Washington state. He had a spiritual connection with the Northwest, grew up in Yakima and spent his summers at his cabin in Goose Prairie. He passed away before it happened, but thanks to the intervention of Washington Sens. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Daniel J. Evans and Slade Gorton, the William O. Douglas Wilderness was established in 1984. And that’s a lasting legacy. But hardly the only one.