December 01, 1975 12:00 PM

The ailing Justice Douglas’ retirement from the Supreme Court was hardly cause for joy, even among those who opposed his ideas. One person who publicly expressed happiness was, in fact, a liberal—his 32-year-old wife, Cathy.

“The nice part of life starts now,” beamed Mrs. Douglas, whose nine-year marriage has survived both skeptics and sickness. “I can go back to being my normal bumbling self, and he’ll be free to concentrate on therapy and rest.”

Last week Douglas, 77, entered Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oreg. His treatment will include acupuncture for pain in his paralyzed left side. Douglas has been impressed with the technique since he and his wife saw it used as anesthesia during a trip to China two years ago.

“I don’t understand,” says Cathy, “how you can be paralyzed and still suffer such intense pain. It’s one of those cruelties of nature.”

It was the periodic bursts of pain that ended Douglas’ career after more than 36 years on the court, making him the longest sitting justice in history. He had been unable to attend even half of the court’s important oral argument November 10 on the constitutionality of the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act. Instead he was in chambers receiving hot-water pack treatments on his left arm, leg and side. Two days later he resigned. “He simply had to see if he could do it,” says Cathy of her husband’s attempt to continue on the bench. “When he found he couldn’t, his respect for the Court and himself demanded that he retire.”

Many political observers were suprised to see Douglas leave while President Ford was still in office. Ford had tried to impeach the liberal Justice five years ago. “He’s not that fond of Ford, but those feelings aren’t very strong,” says Cathy. “They have very different ideas about the Constitution, government’s role, individual rights. But at the end, it was a very personal decision. When you are determining your personal destiny, the name of the president becomes unimportant.”

Cathy met Douglas in 1965 when she was working as a cocktail waitress in her hometown of Portland to pay her way through Maryhurst College. The daughter of a railroad clerk, she quit one year later—in her senior year—to become Douglas’ fourth wife. After the marriage, Cathy finished her B.A. and then went on to get a law degree from American University.

Now an associate with a Washington law firm, Cathy’s career has suffered from her frequent absences since her husband’s stroke last New Year’s Eve. The illness made the once vigorous Douglas irascible, and occasionally he vented his frustration on the closest target—Cathy. He once told her, she says, “If they put a limit on the number of years a justice could serve, it ought to be a 21-year term—10 years to learn how things operate at the Court and then serve at full efficiency for the rest.” (Under that formula Douglas would have been retired in 1960.)

With his departure now, “Bill will have time to recover and our life will return to normal,” Cathy says. “We’re very private people. We go to parties, but they’re not the type that get written up in newspapers.” The Douglases’ close friends include the Clark Cliffords and former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and his wife. Some of Douglas’ recovery time will be devoted to finishing his second volume of memoirs, which reportedly will be sharply critical of conservative Chief Justice Burger, his ideological foe.

If her husband’s health problems—in 1968 doctors installed a pacemaker to correct a slow heartbeat—have proved an intolerable strain, Cathy shows no sign. “It’s a moving experience,” she says, “to see a person you love struggle with the simplest things of life—eating, moving, merely living.”

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