As Anna Diggs Taylor pursued a legal career in the late 1950s, there were few opportunities for her and other African-American women.
Despite that, she gained high-profile positions and eventually became Michigan’s first black female federal judge.
“Anna Diggs Taylor set a standard of excellence for the abilities and performance of women in law,” Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society officials wrote.
Mrs. Taylor died Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at an assisted living center in Grosse Pointe Woods following a brief illness. She was 84.
President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the federal bench in 1979. She was chief judge in Michigan’s Eastern District in 1997 and 1998.
In 2006, Mrs. Taylor made headlines when she said an eavesdropping program without court oversight by the Bush administration was unconstitutional. An appeals court overturned the decision, saying the American Civil Liberties Union didn’t have standing to sue.
Besides federal tax fraud and drug conspiracy cases, she handled issues such as Eminem’s lawsuit against Apple Computer and MTV over song use, banned nativity scenes on city property in Birmingham and Dearborn as well as ordered former automaker John DeLorean to repay millions of dollars.
Perhaps her highest-profile case was the trial of two Detroit autoworkers convicted of the beating death in 1982 of Vincent Chin, 27, outside a Highland Park bar; a federal appeals court later reversed the conviction.
Throughout her tenure, Mrs. Taylor “was conscientious about her caseload — didn’t ever want to fall behind or let things get away from her,” recalled John Mayer, a former court administrator.
In a biography, Mrs. Taylor called her judicial experiences “a thousand times more exciting, more intellectually challenging, and more enriching” than she imagined. But she also said those encounters “have not been unique from those of an African-American woman elevated to high authority in any profession: the day never arrives when one can rest on one’s laurels, or even feel that your most mediocre colleagues recognize you as a peer, at the least.”
Born Dec. 9, 1932, she grew up in Washington, D.C. Her mother, Hazel Bramlette Johnston, taught school. Her father, Virginius Douglass Johnston, was a Howard University trustee.
As her biography recounts, the debates and strategizing for desegregation during Johnston’s tenure inspired Mrs. Taylor to pursue the legal field. She earned degrees from Barnard College and the Yale Law School in the 1950s then joined the Office of Solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor.
In the 1960s, she relocated to Michigan. Mrs. Taylor held numerous roles: assistant Wayne County prosecutor; assistant U.S. attorney; supervising assistant corporation counsel for Detroit; legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a biography.
She also was a partner in a law firm, became an adjunct labor law professor at Wayne State University, served a American Arbitration Association panel and joined a Federal Judicial Center committee on district judge education, the document read.
While on the federal bench, Mrs. Taylor earned a reputation for her approach.
“She was very gracious, unfailingly courteous to people,” Mayer said. “I remember a couple of personnel situations that she handled and they could have been ugly. Because of her graciousness, she was not soft in dealing with these situations, but sort of like the old saying ‘a steel fist in a velvet glove.’ She was very good at what she did.”
Mrs. Taylor also earned honors from professional groups and was trustee of the Detroit Institute of Arts as well as other organizations.
“Black judges have an important role, especially in staying close to their communities,” she told The Detroit News in 1998, the same year she took senior status.
Mrs. Taylor retired in 2011.
Survivors include her husband, S. Martin Taylor; son Douglass Johnston Diggs; daughter Carla Diggs Smith; four grandchildren; and a brother, Lowell Douglass Johnston.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 6, 2018, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, 4800 Woodward, Detroit.
Detroit News Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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