Landmark cases leave legacy of protecting civil liberties

The Detroit News

Judge Damon Keith, whose judicial career spanned more than five decades and 10 presidents, decided cases that involved some of America's most controversial political and social issues.

From school desegregation and workplace discrimination to government surveillance of citizens, he was at the forefront of preserving and protections civil rights and freedoms.

The following are some of his major cases:

• In 1971, in United States v. Sinclair, he ruled against Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell and found that the government couldn't engage in warrantless wiretapping, in this case against John Sinclair and members of the White Panther Party. When the decision was upheld on appeal, the Nixon administration appealed the ruling and sued Keith personally.

The next stop was the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court rulings in a case that became known as "the Keith case." 

Sinclair, who managed the Detroit rock band the MC5, and his cohorts were considered drugged-out hippie radicals who were not expecting fair treatment from the "establishment."

"He turned a nightmare into a great experience," Sinclair said, according to Detroit News archives.

• In 1970, in Davis v. School District of the City of Pontiac, he ruled that the city was building new schools based upon unlawfully segregated neighborhoods. He ordered busing to implement desegregation, a decision that drew death threats. A year after the decision, 10 Pontiac school buses were firebombed by members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

• Another landmark case, Garrett v. City of Hamtramck, was brought in 1968 after the city stopped maintaining streets and the sewers in certain neighborhoods. Basements filled with unsanitary overflow and toilets wouldn't flush in the Grand Haven-Dyar-Dequindre neighborhood. In other African-American neighborhoods in Hamtramck, whole blocks were razed for "urban renewal." Residents were told they had to move out so their homes could be demolished. When they didn't move fast enough, the city shut off their water, according Michael Barnhart, the attorney who brought the case.

Keith, senior judge of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in his 1971 ruling ordered the city to make restitution by rebuilding neighborhoods and offering displaced families financial assistance to move in. He found that the urban renewal carried out by Hamtramck and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was racially discriminatory. But it would be decades before Hamtramck had the political will or the money to follow Keith's orders, said Barnhart. In 2008, 40 years after the push to remove black residents, a phase of restitution was announced and displaced residents and their descendants were eligible for up to $35,000 or more toward the purchase of homes.

• In Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co. in 1973, Keith found that the utility had practiced racial discrimination, ordered it to pay fines and institute an affirmative action program.

• Thirty years after the Nixon administration wiretapping case, Keith returned to the issue in 2002, in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, where the federal judge ruled that President George W. Bush couldn't hold deportation hearings for terrorism suspects behind closed doors.

The case featured the oft-quoted line "Democracy dies behind closed doors."

The quote "is emblazoned above the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights entrance at the Wayne State University Law School, and should serve as a reminder to all of us as we aspire to the legacy he has left our nation," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who clerked for Keith.