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When you come right down to it, talking to U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith is an awful lot like talking to Mr. Black History Month himself.

Or perhaps more accurately — Mr. American History, since Keith’s opinions, from prohibiting wireless wiretaps during the Nixon administration to telling President George W. Bush he couldn’t hold post 9/11 deportation hearings in secret, have become the stuff of law-school textbooks.

In the run-up to Keith’s 29th-annual Soul Food Luncheon on Thursday, always held during Black History Month, The Detroit News sat down with the 93-year-old jurist to talk over this year’s honoree, why Keith thinks Black History Month is still important and his take on the nation’s future.

The Soul Food Luncheon always spotlights an African-American who’s accomplished great things with the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award, which this year goes to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Denise Page Hood, whom President Bill Clinton appointed to the federal bench in 1994.

“When Judge Hood was in law school, she was my intern,” Keith says, noting with amusement that she’s now his judicial superior. “She worked in my office for a full summer.”

At her Jan. 28 swearing-in as chief judge, Keith adds: “Her husband, the Rev. Nicholas Hood III, reminded me that he was courting her that summer, and always met her outside the courthouse when she got off work.”

Keith calls his one-time clerk brilliant, compassionate and understanding.

“And she’s a good listener,” he says, “which is very important for a trial judge. I used to tell Judge Hood, ‘Learn to listen, and listen to learn,’ which she has throughout her distinguished career.”

The Soul Food Luncheon award is given every year to an adult, but is really aimed squarely at African-American children.

“I am concerned that we highlight successes of black men and women,” Keith says, “apart from football, baseball and basketball. That’s important to me.”

And that, he contends, is the sum value of Black History Month. It reminds any kids paying attention that, as Keith puts it, “if they study and work hard, they can reach the heights of individuals like Judge Hood.”

The luncheon, a by-invitation-only affair that usually draws more than 300, is a key event in the political calendar for both parties. Keith says he hasn’t yet heard from the governor, who usually attends, but says Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has already said he’ll be there.

Also attending will be Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell, Edsel Ford II and wife Cynthia, as well as many of Keith’s former law clerks, several of whom always fly in from around the country for the event.

Keith likes to say, “My clerks are going to make me famous,” and with individuals such as Hood, Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier and former-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, among them, you begin to see his point.

But the Sixth Circuit’s oldest sitting judge has been famous on his own for a long time.

With the 1972 “Keith Decision,” the Detroiter barred President Richard Nixon’s use of domestic warrantless wiretaps, a judgment unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even more famous, perhaps, was his 2002 decision prohibiting President George W. Bush from holding secret deportation hearings for suspected terrorists, which led to one of his most-quoted lines: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”

Asked just how he thinks American democracy is faring these days, Keith smiles.

“I am a great optimist,” he says.

mhodges@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mhodgesartguy

‘2016 Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award’

Honoree: Judge Denise Page Hood

Job: Chief Judge — U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan

Experience: Wayne County Circuit Court Judge, Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge, 36th District Court Judge, City of Detroit Law Department

Education: B.A., Yale University 1974; J.D., Columbia University Law School 1977

Age: 63

Husband: The Rev. Nicholas Hood III

Children: Two sons

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