It is always a joy when a book opens a window into a life that you thought you knew but adds dimension and transformation. That is the joy that reading Citizen Justice brings to our understanding of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. As someone who finds daily restoration in walks through the wilderness, I immediately felt a kinship with the William Douglas who emerges here. M. Margaret McKeown’s biography focuses on the unique contribution Justice Douglas made to our current concepts of environmental conservation and the complexities that brought to his role as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
We see Douglas emerge as a man created by his upbringing. Hiking trails and mountains were as much a part of his early life as law books became later. There evolved a sense that walking a dirt path through a forest was as essential to American life as any other fundamental freedom. So, we are not surprised to see him orchestrate a demonstration to save the C & O Canal from destruction by proposed road construction. The demonstration took the form of a very, very long hike. The result was a new national park.
The title of the book reflects its underlying tension and the perspective of Douglas as a member of the country’s highest court and his insistence on his role as an active citizen as well. While he resigned as a board member of the Sierra Club before deciding one of their cases, he maintained his membership and his ongoing advocacy for their causes.
As with any historical biography, the reader cannot help but project the historical past onto a contemporary viewpoint. McKeown’s narrative shows us a justice who had personal political ambitions and strong ideas about where the law should go. He was unrestrained in his commitment to land-use conservation efforts, often blurring the lines between “citizen” and “justice.” That concept stayed with me as I took the time to walk the Georgetown portion of the C & O Canal shortly after reading this book. The return steps took me toward the center of D.C., where these concerns are resonating as loudly today.