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Even in death, Wild Bill Douglas is stirring things up. William O. Douglas, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1939 to 1975, has been back in the news recently, thanks to a unflattering biography. Author Bruce Allen Murphy accuses the liberal icon responsible for Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, of being a lout, a slapdash judge, a terrible boss, and a liar unfit for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. That isn’t sitting well with his former clerks. On Wednesday, about 30 of them gathered in San Francisco to hear the book debunked and derided by one of their own. U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who clerked for Douglas from 1971 to 1972, assumed the role of chief defender. Among those joining him were Jerome Falk Jr., of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin; former Secretary of State Warren Christopher — and two of Douglas’ ex-wives. In the Northern District of California’s Ceremonial Courtroom, Alsup cross-examined Douglas’ critics in absentia. His primary targets were Murphy, author of “Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas,” and Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, who, through a book review entitled “The Anti-Hero,” gave Murphy’s conclusions the benefit of Posner’s own stellar reputation. “Those who would promote themselves at the expense of the honored dead in this country ought to get their facts straight,” Alsup said. Alsup’s case was built on the work of David Danelski, a retired Stanford University professor who is living in Maryland while working on his own biography of Douglas. After Random House released “Wild Bill” in March, Danelski released a 23-page “open letter” rebutting many of Murphy’s damning conclusions as the byproduct of shoddy research. For example, Murphy asserts that Douglas’ brief 1918 stint in the Student’s Army Training Corps did not qualify him for burial at Arlington. But Alsup produced Douglas’ honorable discharge (a document, Alsup noted, that Murphy apparently was never able to locate), which indicated that Douglas was paid $60 on discharge — just as had every other member of the U.S. Army. Since SATC members were considered part of the regular Army, Douglas was eligible for an Arlington burial. But Alsup seemed less upset with Murphy than he did with Posner, a prolific author and arguably the single most influential judge working in America today. “Judge Posner’s article may be the most hateful thing I have ever read about a member of the Supreme Court, much less one written by a member of the judiciary,” Alsup said. In the article, Posner called Douglas “a liar to rival Baron Munchausen.” (Posner’s criticism is somewhat ironic since the Supreme Court justice for whom Posner clerked, William Brennan, once said he knew of only two geniuses — Posner and Douglas.) As for Murphy’s assertion that Douglas cast his votes on the Supreme Court with an eye toward a future run for the presidency, Alsup said that simply wasn’t so: Along with several other controversial votes, Douglas ordered a stay of execution for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Falk, meanwhile, disputed the depiction of Douglas as a mean-spirited, dishonorable slave driver. Falk said that wasn’t his experience — even though he worked seven days a week, usually until midnight. “He piled on just enough work so that I wouldn’t confuse lawyer’s basic training with a vacation in Bermuda. [But] not so much that I would fail,” Falk said. Murphy didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. In an e-mail message Thursday, Posner said he couldn’t respond to comments he had neither seen nor heard, but called the point about Douglas’ brief military service “absurdly technical.” “The fact is that Douglas was a consummate, compulsive liar, whatever Judge Alsup thinks,” Posner wrote.

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