Citizen Justice

The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas—Public Advocate and Conservation Champion

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Pub Date 01 Sep 2022 | Archive Date 31 Aug 2022

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Description

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a giant in the legal world, even if he is often remembered for his four wives, as a potential vice-presidential nominee, as a target of impeachment proceedings, and for his tenure as the longest-serving justice from 1939 to 1975. His most enduring legacy, however, is perhaps his advocacy for the environment.

Douglas was the spiritual heir to early twentieth-century conservation pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. His personal spiritual mantra embraced nature as a place of solitude, sanctuary, and refuge. Caught in the giant expansion of America’s urban and transportation infrastructure after World War II, Douglas became a powerful leader in forging the ambitious goals of today’s environmental movement. And, in doing so, Douglas became a true citizen justice.

In a way unthinkable today, Douglas ran a one-man lobby shop from his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court, bringing him admiration from allies in conservation groups but raising ethical issues with his colleagues. He became a national figure through his books, articles, and speeches warning against environmental dangers. Douglas organized protest hikes to leverage his position as a national icon, he lobbied politicians and policymakers privately about everything from logging to highway construction and pollution, and he protested at the Supreme Court through his voluminous and passionate dissents.

Douglas made a lasting contribution to both the physical environment and environmental law—with trees still standing, dams unbuilt, and beaches protected as a result of his work. His merged roles as citizen advocate and justice also put him squarely in the center of ethical dilemmas that he never fully resolved. Citizen Justice elucidates the why and how of these tensions and their contemporary lessons against the backdrop of Douglas’s unparalleled commitment to the environment.
 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a giant in the legal world, even if he is often remembered for his four wives, as a potential vice-presidential nominee, as a target of impeachment...


Advance Praise

“Justice Douglas was a complicated figure, and his record is far from spotless. But with his hiking boots on he brought things to American governance and jurisprudence that hadn’t been there before: a clear-eyed love for the world around us and a sense of the threats it faced. If he seems to us like a figure from another era, there were ways in which he was well ahead of his time.”—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“A magnificent portrayal not only of a heroic and brilliant yet nonetheless flawed justice but of the conservation movement of the second half of the twentieth century in which Justice Douglas played a surprisingly central role. Judge McKeown’s highly engaging and richly detailed account underscores the enormously positive impact Douglas had on preserving the nation’s landscape.”—Richard J. Lazarus, professor of environmental and constitutional law at Harvard Law School

“We remember Justice William O. Douglas as the brilliant, irascible, much-married Supreme Court dissenter—but this fascinating and highly readable book makes the persuasive case that this unusual man was, above all, one of the great environmentalists of the twentieth century. Those of us who love the American landscape and its remaining wild places, as he did, are in his debt.”—Linda Greenhouse, author of Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court

“William O. Douglas was chronically controversial, frequently cantankerous, sometimes conniving, and often cavalier about judicial ethics. But whether on the bench or on the trail, he toiled tirelessly and creatively to protect the wilderness he held so dear. This colorful and compelling book secures his rightful place in the pantheon of environmental champions.”—David M. Kennedy, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945

“Justice Douglas was a complicated figure, and his record is far from spotless. But with his hiking boots on he brought things to American governance and jurisprudence that hadn’t been there before:...


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Featured Reviews

Before there was an Al Gore there was William O. Douglas.
“Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas—Public Advocate and Conservation Champion” by M. Margaret McKeown looks at the legacy of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as it relates to his environmental and conservation work.
Today, when it seems that our current court, does not care about conflict of interest, accepting monies outside of the court, not interested in how real people live or the whole idea of precedence, McKeown takes us back to a time when there was a Justice who stood for the underdog, the environment, indigenous people and ethics.
William O. Douglas was the longest serving Justice up to the current time and during those years he pushed, both on the court and off, for conservation and fighting for trees, rivers and mountains who did not have a voice of their own. Yes he was a liberal, yes he wrote a lot of minority opinions but he held firm to his convictions and beliefs. He was not swayed by other members on the court or other politicians, he was clearly his own person.
This book is extremely well written and researched. It is clear that the author believes in the subject and that she wants others to find out that there was a Supreme Court Justice that is more relevant today than we recognize. Before we had Earth Day and major legislation protecting the environment there was Douglas. If he had not taken up the cause of raising the awareness of the potential plight of our land we might not have the acres and acres of national parks and protected areas.
Although, this book may not receive a wide audience it really should. Anyone who is interested in the work of the Sierra Club or other organizations that are working hard to protect our environment should get this book as it shows their connection to Douglas during their early years. Also, for those interested in the potential power and influence that a Supreme Court Justice can have on public debate makes this a must read.

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This book perfectly fit with my interests in ecological issues and environmental history. In my reading over the years, I'd often see William Douglas's name mentioned, but I wasn't interested in reading a full biography and the long list of books he wrote made it a little overwhelming to pick one to read. This book focuses exactly on the area of his life which interested me, and the text includes descriptions of several of his books.

Through him, it also looks at the environmental issues of his time in a broader sense including some of the people he associated with. For example, I was glad to read about the Muries, whom I've also seen mentioned many times over the years and because I lived in that area for a few years.

Douglas's activism on wilderness issues was admirable, if questionable given his position. Regardless of his personal flaws, if today's judicial and political leaders were more interested in protecting the natural world instead of corporations, and limiting guns instead of taking away women's rights, this would be a much better country. Let's not pretend the Supreme Court isn't political just because they're not open about their activism as Douglas was.

It was a pleasure to read this book. Thanks to University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for the advance copy.

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