WILLIAM EDELEN: My Friend, Justice William O. Douglas




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WILLIAM EDELEN (1922 – 2015)
The Contrary Minister

We are perched on a precipice in the history of our Democracy when it comes to the role of the Supreme Court today. I contemplate OFTEN nowadays… how my old friend Justice William O. Douglas would interpret these current maneuverings.

If Douglas was alive and on the court TODAY, he would be appalled at the very notion of the “Citizens United” opinion narrowing the definition of “corruption” to “quid-pro-quo” (money for political favors) AND giving the rights of “person-hood” to “corporations.” As stated so emphatically by Mitt Romney during the 2010 Presidential Campaign, “Corporations are people, my friend!”


“The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to keep the government off the backs of the people,” Douglas wrote. Further he wrote: “The New York Stock Exchange is a cross between a casino and a private club, filled with termites.” President Franklin Roosevelt was a good friend of many on the Stock Exchange, and yet he told Douglas, “Go ahead and charge them.” Douglas went ahead full speed and charged Richard Whitney, the President of the Exchange, who was indicted for the embezzlement of his clients’ securities. Whitney was convicted and sent to prison. Douglas zeroed in on the other members of the Exchange to make reforms that would be totally and truly responsive to security holders.

His bluntness and straight forward language was never misunderstood. More of his dissents have become federal law than any other Justice of history.

When Warren Christopher was Secretary of State, he was a guest on the Larry King talk show and King asked him this question: “You have met most all of those whom the world calls “great”. Is there anyone who stands out above all the rest?” Christopher gave this answer: “Oh yes, Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS”.

I am honored to have called him “my friend”. It happened this way:

When I was the senior minister of the First Congregational Church in Tacoma, WA, about 400 copies of my weekly “sermons” were mailed to those who requested them. Douglas started reading them, sent by a friend in Tacoma. One day I received a hand-written letter from him inviting me to spend a day with him at his cabin in Goose Prairie, WA. That letter, today, is framed and hanging in my study as one of my most cherished mementos. 2 March 22, 2015 – Justice William O. Douglas

I arrived in Goose Prairie about 9:00 a.m. on a spectacular August mountain morning. A great smile, with a leathery face greeted me at the door. He said, “Welcome Bill. I have so admired your essays… and especially your UNCLUTTERED mind.” We spent the entire day walking on his land, with his horses and plants, and talking about many stimulating subjects.

We were kindred spirits in so many ways. We both had bad polio as a child… we were both mavericks and totally independent in our professions. He so admired the minister of the ALL SOULS UNITARIAN CHURCH in Washington, D.C., where he and Justice Hugo Black were on the first row every Sunday where they listened to Powell Davies, whose “sermons” found their way into Supreme Court Decisions. At which point he said to me: “Listen Bill, you keep speaking and writing, you are much needed, and always remember you never know how far those words of yours are going or what their influence is going to be.”

As he had done with the law, forging ahead and letting the chips fall where they may, found in me a similar maverick spirit with the Bible and Religion, and admired it. He told me, and wrote it, that “The Bible and Christianity conditioned men to be vandals, converting everything from alligator skins to mountain ranges, to blue waters, into dollars. Men took the wealth and left only the ashes.” That is why Douglas created the “WILDERNESS BILL OF RIGHTS” as a champion for NATURE. That nature, itself, is in dire need of representation and status.

It was Albert Schweitzer who reminded us of our debt to mentors in these words: “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled our inner light.” As I recall my own spiritual and intellectual odyssey, I remember, with gratitude, those who have kept my inner light burning. They have been mostly mavericks, who through their independence made monumental contributions to our life on earth. Webster defines “maverick” as an “independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.” They only listen to the voice within.

A day to cherish in my memory forever… that day spent alone with Justice William O. Douglas, in his Goose Prairie cabin, high in his beloved mountains. My light was blown again into flame, a flame that remains to this very day… thinking of him often in the context of our current Supreme Court

In his book “The Douglas Opinions” Harvard Professor Vern Countryman writes, “More of the dissents of Justice Douglas have become law than either Holmes or Brandeis.”

Conservative, nationally syndicated columnist JAMES KIRKPATRICK wrote a beautiful eulogy in his next column, following the death of Douglas. Kirkpatrick ended his column with these words: “THERE WAS A MAN.”