‘I Would Vote to Impeach Him Right Now’

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On April 15, 1970, Ford took the House floor and began a speech making the public case against Douglas. Sounding like he was reading from a binder of oppo research, the congressman highlighted some of Douglas’ most provocative writings outside the court, such as his book, “Points of Rebellion.”

“Recently, there has appeared on the stands a little black book with the autograph, ‘William O. Douglas,’ scrawled on the cover in red,” Ford said. “Its title is ‘Points of Rebellion’ and its thesis is that violence may be justified and perhaps only revolutionary overthrow of ‘the establishment’ can save the country.

“The kindest thing I can say about this 97-page tome is that it is quick reading. Had it been written by a militant sophomore, as it easily could, it would of course have never found a prestige publisher like Random House. It is a fuzzy harangue evidently intended to give historic legitimacy to the militant hippie-yippie movement and to bear testimony that a 71-year-old Justice of the Supreme Court is one in spirit with them.”

In that book, Douglas wrote: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III, Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” (George III was the king of England when the American colonies declared their independence.)

Ford also castigated Douglas for writing — while on the Supreme Court —in magazines such as Avant Garde, whose publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, had been convicted in 1963 of violating federal obscenity laws.

“When I first encountered the facts of Mr. Justice Douglas’ involvement with pornographic publications and espousal of hippie-yippie style revolution, I was inclined to dismiss his fractious behavior as the first sign of senility,” Ford said. “But I believe I underestimated the justice.”

“In case there are any ‘square’ Americans who were too stupid to get the message Mr. Justice Douglas was trying to tell us, he has now removed all possible misunderstanding,” Ford added, citing Douglas’ writings for another publication, Evergreen Review. As House members thumbed through copies of the risqué magazine, Ford said, “I am simply unable to describe the prurient advertisements, the perverted suggestions, the downright filthy illustrations and the shocking and execrable four-letter language it employs.”

Ford argued that Douglas should have recused himself from Ginzburg’s appeal of a $75,000 libel judgment won by Sen. Barry Goldwater, dating back to a 1964 article in another Ginzburg publication that had likened the then-GOP presidential candidate to Adolph Hitler. In January 1970, the Supreme Court denied Ginzburg’s request to review the judgment; Douglas was one of two justices to dissent. Ford noted that Douglas had received $350 for his article in Avant Garde.

“Writing signed articles for notorious publications of a convicted pornographer is bad enough. Taking money from them is worse. Declining to disqualify one’s self in this case is inexcusable,” Ford charged.

And Ford elliptically referred to Douglas’ messy personal life, including his four marriages, the last two of which were to women in their early 20s when Douglas was in his 60s: “His private life, to the degree that it does not bring the Supreme Court into disrepute, is his own business. One does not need to be an ardent admirer of any judge or justice, or an advocate of his lifestyle, to acknowledge his right to be elevated to or remain on the bench.”

In addition, Ford suggested that the justice, who had been nominated to the court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, might have ties to Mafia and gambling figures. He called for an investigation into Douglas’ behavior, adding, “I would vote to impeach him right now.”

The next day, more than 100 House members endorsed a resolution calling for the creation of a special committee to investigate whether to impeach Douglas. Roughly half of the members who signed on were Democrats, but they were primarily conservatives from the South.

Ford’s attack against the justice, leveled in particularly personal terms, was out of character for the normally genial Midwestern lawmaker. And there was a reason for that: Ford was working at the behest of a much more bare-knuckle politician — Nixon, who was still seething at Democrats for rejecting his first two Supreme Court nominees.

The White House denied any involvement in the anti-Douglas effort at the time. But William Saxbe, a Republican Ohio senator who went on to become Nixon’s last attorney general, wrote in his memoir that Nixon had “sicced” Ford on Douglas “in retaliation and probably in a fit of pique” after losing those votes.

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