Damon Keith marks 50 years as federal judge

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

U.S. Appellate Judge Damon J. Keith’s journey to becoming one of the longest-serving federal jurists has not been easy, but his five decades on the bench have produced some of the nation’s boldest rulings and legal opinions.

Keith, who celebrates his 50th anniversary as a federal judge this month, has handed down some of the most seminal legal decisions in U.S. history in hot-button cases that were framed around race and civil liberties.

One of those rulings, in 1970, led to the busing of students in the Pontiac schools to racially desegregate the district, sparking a backlash.

Keith recalls receiving death threats. The year after his decision, 10 Pontiac school buses were firebombed by members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Schedule for Damon J. Keith's 'Fight for Justice'

Keith also ordered the U.S. government, under President Richard Nixon, to stop wiretapping defendants without judicial approval in a case involving the anti-war group the White Panthers and the bombing of a CIA building in Ann Arbor.

“His whole body of work as a jurist is inspiring to anybody,” said Chief Judge Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court’s Eastern Division. “... The wiretap case can be seen as one of the first real cases involving things that need to be transparent to the extent that they can be. His famous quote, ‘Democracy dies behind closed doors,’ still has a meaning for us today.”

Keith, 95, was named a U.S. district judge by President Lyndon Johnson in October 1967. A decade later, President Jimmy Carter elevated him to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A grandson of slaves and a U.S. military veteran of World War II, Keith suffered through racial indignities on his ascension to one of the highest courts in the country.

The judge still recalls what a white male reporter at The Detroit News told him in 1949 when he was working for the newspaper as a janitor.

The reporter saw him carrying Ballentine’s Law Dictionary and asked why he was reading the book. After Keith told the reporter he was going to be a lawyer, the newsman retorted: “A black lawyer? You better keep mopping.”

“I never thought I would become a judge,” Keith said recently. “God made it possible.”

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While Keith went from active to senior status with the court in the mid-1990s, he has continued to write opinions that address constitutional issues ranging from free speech to civil rights. He hears about three to four cases a year, said a member of his staff.

In 2002, Keith rebuked the White House in a post-Sept. 11 decision ordering that “special interest” hearings in deportation cases be open to the public. Before the ruling, some 700 deportation cases had been heard behind closed doors, according to the federal government.

Last year, Keith issued a scathing dissent in a 6th Circuit ruling that upheld some Ohio election laws that created stricter rules for voters, saying the decision “takes us several steps back” from the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Attached to his ruling were photographs of African-Americans who died in the fight for the right to vote, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and teenager Emmett Till, who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Keith said he included the pictures to drive home the point that “voting rights are the most important constitutional rights in the country. Many men and women died for that precious right.”

In July, Keith was honored by the U.S. Supreme Court justices in a ceremony that is marked by one of numerous plaques and photographs that grace the walls of the jurist’s office in the federal courthouse downtown.

A co-founder of the Detroit NAACP’s annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner, Keith is a recipient of the civil rights organization’s Spingarn medal joining African-American luminaries such as the King, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson and Medgar Evers.

Keith attended Howard University’s law school and was taught by Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Keith’s desire to become a lawyer was partly rooted in a desire to free people like himself from the racism he faced when he came home to America after serving in the war in Europe.

The jurist has mentored some of the country’s most prominent legal minds, including former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier and Judge Eric Clay of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Guinier, a former law clerk, said the veteran jurist has provided a “thriving community of lawyers of all colors inspired by Judge Keith’s instruction to respect the rule of law while passionately directing it toward justice. I loved working for him so much that I signed on to clerk for another year.”

Guinier added: “Judge Keith has been my second father, someone who presided at my wedding, stood by me during some of the most difficult professional challenges of my life, and guided me with his wisdom. And I am far from alone — hundreds of other clerks whose legal careers he launched continue to think of him as family too.”

Clay, another former law clerk, said Keith has been “a transformational figure” locally through his civic and political involvement but also made contributions nationally to the civil rights movement.

Clay said Keith has made rulings that have “withstood the test of time and have been vindicated by (other) judicial opinions,” including rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. Clay specifically mentioned Keith’s decisions in the early 1970s on wiretapping and racial discrimination.

“Judge Keith was a calm but decisive voice during that time of political and social upheaval,” Clay said.

Trevor Coleman, a Washington speechwriter and communications strategist, co-wrote “Crusader For Justice,” a book on Keith’s legal career and life. “Even though (Keith) is better known for his civil rights activism, his fellow judges consider him to be one of the greatest civil libertarians on the court bench,” Coleman said.

“He has a better reputation than Thurgood Marshall.”

Hood said Keith paved the way for other African-American lawyers and jurists.

“He’s someone who opened many doors for us, including that door that says here is a black man who is a thorough judge who has the capacity to analyze difficult problems and difficult issues ... and really paving the way for people to be more accepting of other African-American judges,” she said.

Longtime U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, 93, met Keith when both were practicing attorneys in Detroit.

“(Judge Keith) has been an exemplary jurist for many years,” said Cohn. “In his years as a district judge, he set examples for all judges.”

Cohn said Keith’s role as a federal judge put him on the “front line of the fight against discrimination,” recalling Keith’s ruling that upheld Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young’s affirmative action program, which desegregated the city’s mostly white police force.

Reginald Turner, an attorney who worked for years to defend affirmative action at the University of Michigan, said Keith has been a role model and mentor both locally and nationally.

“I’ve had the privilege of listening to him one-on-one or in small groups on many occasions, receiving advice on the lawyer’s obligation in society ‘to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,’ as Judge Keith frequently reminds us.”

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Damon J. Keith at a glance

Born: Damon Jerome Keith on July 4, 1922, in Detroit to Perry and Annie Keith, the youngest of six children.

Education: West Virginia State College (B.A. 1943), Howard University Law School (J.D. 1949), where he was elected chief justice of the Court of Peers, and Wayne State University Law School (LL.M. 1956).

Judicial career: Appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1967 and served as chief judge of the Eastern District; appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth District in 1977.

Personal: Married to Dr. Rachel Boone for 53 years (She died in 2007.). Daughters Cecile Keith Brown, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith. Two granddaughters, Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown.