After only a few hours in paradise to celebrate the new year, a stroke fell a Supreme Court justice. Justice of the American Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, had earned the honour of becoming one of the longest serving justice in the Court’s history. Justice Douglas was 40 years old when President Franklin Roosevelt named him to the Supreme Court in March 1939. Douglas sat on the US Supreme Court for more than thirty-five years (1939-75), and during those years he wrote some thirty books in addition to his legal opinions.

 

Shortly after arriving on Paradise Island, Douglas began to feel unwell. As fate would have it, he was alone in a hotel room on December 31, 1974, in the Bahamas, when chest pains and shortness of breath wracked his body. Douglas was having, what would become, a life changing debilitating stroke.

 

Cathy, his thirty-one year old fourth wife was not in the room with her husband at the time. When she returned to the room, Cathy Douglas found her husband collapsed on the floor, confused and partly paralyzed.

 

Douglas was now reduced to the kindness of those in Washington who has opposed him. Four years earlier in 1970, then House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, who would later become President, led the drive to impeach Douglas for alleged financial improprieties and for granting a brief stay of execution in the Rosenburg spy case.

 

President Ford ordered a military plane to fly to the Bahamas to bring the stricken Douglas back to America. The ailing Justice was brought back to Washington and placed in intensive care at Walter Reed Hospital.

 

After almost three months in Walter Reed, Douglas showed little improved. The stroke had done its worse. His speech was slurred, his left arm was paralyzed, and his legs were almost useless. Douglas was determined to resume his life and judicial responsibilities. He defied his doctors and returned to the Court, determined to resume his duties despite his incapacity.

 

During his recovery, Douglas had missed twenty-one Supreme Court votes while hospitalised. His determination remained unwavering. He returned to the bench, but the results were tragic. Douglas, bent in a wheelchair with his arm in a sling, reportedly fell asleep during an oral argument or was forced by severe pain to leave the bench. Douglas, the esteemed jurist, hung on.

 

At the start of the new court term, Douglas returned. Racked by pain and unable to maintain his concentration or even to control his bodily functions, Douglas continued to decline.

 

Eventually, his colleagues reached an extraordinary—and very private—decision. They took away his vote.

 

At the Conference of October 17, 1975, with Douglas absent, seven of the remaining eight Justices agreed that no case would be decided five-four with Douglas in the majority. Technically, this was done by merely putting over for reargument any case in which Douglas cast the deciding vote.

 

The effect was that the Justices had effectively stripped their ailing colleague of his power.

 

Douglas returned to the Supreme Court but submitted his letter of retirement on 18th November 1975 after 36 years on the bench.

 

He passed away on January 19, 1980.

 

 

 

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