Book Review:  Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas, Public Advocate and Conservation Champion, by M. Margaret McKeown

This fascinating account—of a jurist by a jurist—notes in its early pages that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had a childhood bout of fever and paralysis, suspected to be polio. It “left him a small, sickly child with spindly legs” (p.4). Douglas adapted to his body and the world through “immersion in nature” that “brought both practical and spiritual benefits” (p.5). The book (which, in full disclosure, was written by the judge I clerked for) goes on to chronicle Douglas’s lifelong advocacy for the environment.

Painting a picture of the avid hiker and conservationist that Douglas became, the book made me reflect on the deep and healing relationship nature can have with our bodies. There is, of course, no shortage of thoughtful accounts about the intersection between disability justice and climate justice. This book comes from a different angle, showing Douglas’s dedication to the environment as growing out of his early bodily experiences, situated in the context of his complex personality. The man that grows from these pages—Western iconoclast working Washington’s halls of power, prolific writer on and off the Court, dedicated progressive, libertarian bridling at government inefficiency—defies easy categorization.

Douglas penned the famous dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton that argued, unsuccessfully, that trees and rivers should have “standing” to bring environmental lawsuits. Douglas had been a member of the Sierra Club and had openly supported its positions, but did not recuse himself as judicial ethics might have counselled. Citizen Justice captures both the appeal of Douglas’s full-throated argument and the unease at his dubious methods.

There are troubling aspects of Douglas’s story. Author McKeown does not whitewash them. She acknowledges everything from his four young wives to the undertones of class and racial elitism in some of his advocacy. Perhaps most interesting, she explores his flirting with the edge of judicial ethics—and at times crossing the line. In his zeal to be a “Citizen Justice,” Douglas used his position on the Supreme Court to advocate for what he believed in, even when that meant lobbying Congress or the executive or taking public positions on one side of an issue that would shortly come before the Court.

The reminder that ethical questions are not confined to one side of the ideological spectrum seems particularly timely in today’s world. As we work to accomplish our goals as civil rights lawyers, we would do well to read this account and think about the lessons of those who went before us.