Douglas's frontier of freedom

"Wilderness people are at the opposite end of the spectrum from any standardized product of this machine age. . .," wrote Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. And he was the quintessential unstandardized product, a dauntless wilderness person whether roaming the mountains in dramatic recovery from childhood illness, staking a claim to the frontiers of freedom on the bench , or fighting to save the natural environment for all.

It was typical of Douglas that, when asked what he would like to be remembered for, he did not cite his more than 36 years on the Supreme Court, the longest tenure in history; he hoped he would be known for leaving the Earth a little more beautiful. The eulogies after his passing have been confirming this conservationist legacy while stressing Douglas's other form of conservation -- the judicial preservation of constitutional rights.

The First Amendment, for example, was to Douglas a flat statement, and flat adherence to it was the best protection. It said that Congress should make "no law" abridging freedom of speech or press. The risks of letting ideas and expression flourish, no matter how repellent, were to Douglas always less than the risks of inhibiting them. He had the basic democratic faith that the people will on balance choose the good and reject the bad.

The Justice's own free expression, to be sure, sometimes got him in trouble. One magazine article nudged Congressman Gerald Ford to call for a select committee inquiring whether Douglas should be impeached. Yet, when Douglas later chose to resign from the Supreme Court for reasons of health, President Ford wrote him that "your distinguished years of service are unequaled in all the history of the Court."

It was Justice Douglas who granted the defense a stay of the Ellsberg Pentagon papers trial shortly after the Watergate break-in in the summer of 1972 . The stay was to allow defendants time to appeal to the Supreme Court that the government should disclose details of a wiretapped conversation involving a defense lawyer or consultant. An appeals court had ruled that no disclosure was required. Typically Douglas wanted opposition to secrecy to have its day in court.

The concern with human rights formed a seamless fabric with the concern for the "rights" of nature. Douglas's wilderness bill of rights" echoed conservationist Aldo Leopold's earlier call for a conservation ethic by which humankind would go beyond political and civil rights and responsibilities to recognize itself as part of the community of nature -- having a fellow-citizenly responsibility for land, air, water, and wildlife. As Americans approach the tenth anniversary of Earth Day, with its spur to appreciating and respecting the environment, they might well take time to honor and emulate the wilderness people like Douglas who sounded the theme long ago and fostered the legislation on which later laws have been built. We can all leave the earth a little more beautiful.

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