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‘Citizen Justice’: La Jolla judge publishes book detailing ‘imperfect hero’ William O. Douglas

Judge M. Margaret McKeown of La Jolla is on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
(Provided by M. Margaret McKeown)

The late U.S. Supreme Court justice left an environmental legacy that M. Margaret McKeown describes in her first book for a general audience.

To Judge M. Margaret McKeown, late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was an “imperfect hero.”

Douglas left an environmental legacy that McKeown, a La Jolla resident, elaborates on in her new book, “Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas — Public Advocate and Conservation Champion.”

The book, published Sept. 1, chronicles how Douglas — the longest-serving U.S. justice in history, from 1939 to 1975 — “led a bifurcated life,” McKeown said.

In addition to his tenure on the Supreme Court, he “ran a one-man lobby shop from the Supreme Court for environmental issues,” she said, something that has not been explored previously “from the public policy and ethical standpoint.”

McKeown, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly 25 years, is no stranger to taking on roles off the bench. She also is jurist-in-residence at the University of San Diego School of Law, a research scholar at Stanford University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in addition to speaking to various public groups.

M. Margaret McKeown says William O. Douglas was "flawed but fascinating."
(Provided by M. Margaret McKeown)

Douglas, however, “wasn’t just speaking to groups,” she said, “he was affirmatively campaigning.”

“He was like the bandleader for the early conservation movement,” McKeown said. “He did so much … to bring environmental issues to the table, which resonates now because the environment is very much in the news and on people’s minds.”

Douglas, who died in 1980 at age 81, was “like a canary in a coal mine,” she said, warning about the dangers of pollution, pesticides and warming waters “ahead of his time.”

Additionally, McKeown said, Douglas “was a very unusual guy. I think he was flawed but fascinating. … He stirred up a lot of controversy.”

She said she finds Douglas fascinating “because he was a larger-than-life justice. I would say he pushed the envelope both personally and ethically.”

“I think that many times we think of heroes as being these perfect individuals,” she added, “[but] I would say he’s an imperfect hero.”

He had many good qualities, friendships and “famous opinions” but also had flaws, she said. “At one point, he wanted to be vice president, so he spent about a decade while he was on the court pursuing that, which, of course, raised more than a few eyebrows.”

He also “didn’t always mind the ethical boundaries of being a Supreme Court justice,” she said.

“That was the conundrum. When does he cross the line and interfere with the work of the court or the public confidence in the court?”

For McKeown, writing the book “was an interesting chance to take all of the many documents and papers that are available now and piece the story together. … What lessons do we learn today?”

“Citizen Justice” is McKeown’s first book published for a general audience. She said those not in the legal profession will “be able to take away what an amazing personality [Douglas] was.”

“I think it’s interesting to look at a historical figure like that, who is also so prominent in the legal world,” she said.

She added that readers can take away “an understanding of how we evolved in the United States from conservation to preservation to environmentalism.”

The book explores the “balance between preserving and access, which we still see conflict today,” McKeown said. “And [Douglas’] story really tells that. He was always bringing his message of saying that if we don’t preserve the wilderness, it will be gone.”

McKeown said she finds it interesting that Douglas “was very much an advocate of citizens on the ground, advocating for themselves and their community.”

Douglas encouraged Americans to “group together over issues and then [begin] very aggressive and endless correspondence with their members of Congress, their local politicians, their church, their synagogue,” she said.

“He was an amazing justice.”

To purchase “Citizen Justice,” visit bit.ly/WarwicksMcKeown or amzn.to/3xN1B32.