Judge Keith files scathing dissent in Ohio voting case

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

A federal appeals judge issued a scathing dissent this week to his court’s partial reversal of a lower court’s decision on an Ohio voting right’s case, including 11 pages showing pictures of “those who died for equal protection and for this precious right to vote.”

Sixth Circuit Judge Damon Keith, a Detroit native, issued his 38-page dissent to the majority ruling filed Tuesday by colleagues Judge Danny Boggs and Judge John Rogers.

Boggs and Rogers chose to toss part of a group of Ohio voting laws that created stricter rules for voters. They upheld other portions and denied any of the provisions “disparately impact(ed) minority voters.”

In his dissent, Keith bit back with pictures and summaries of the deaths of 36 people — young and old, black and white — who he said were part of “the martyrdom and struggle for equal protection.”

The faces included legends like Dr. Martin Luther King alongside children, like 13-year-old Virgil Lamar Ware, who Keith said was fatally shot in 1963 by white teenagers. The shooters were returning home from a segregationist rally held in the aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that claimed the lives of four others included on Keith’s list: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

The 6th Circuit Court ruling followed a lower district court’s decision to toss all three provisions stemming from Ohio Senate bills 205 and 216, passed in 2014.

The bills required voters to fill out forms “with technical precision” and called for county boards to reject ballots if the forms did not perfectly match voting records. Additionally, the bills reduced the number of days for absentee voters to correct mistakes from 10 to seven days and limited the amount of help a poll worker could provide to in-person voters.

In the 6th Circuit Court ruling, Boggs and Rogers upheld the lower court’s decision to toss the first provision calling for “technical precision” on voting forms. The appeals judges agreed the provision created an “undue burden” on voters but denied it was racially unfair.

They reversed the lower court’s ruling against the other two provisions on absentee vote correction and poll worker help.

“We also reverse the district court’s finding that the provisions disparately impact minority voters,” Boggs wrote in the opinion joined by Rogers.

In his dissent, Keith blasted his colleagues for an opinion he said “takes us several steps back” from the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Rather than honor the men and women whose murdered lives opened the doors of our democracy and secured our right to vote, the Majority has abandoned this court’s standard of review in order to conceal the votes of the most defenseless behind the dangerous veneers of factual findings lacking support and legal standards lacking precedent,” Keith wrote. “I am deeply saddened and distraught by the court’s deliberate decision to reverse the progress of history. I dissent.”

Keith noted that he would fully uphold the lower court’s ruling to completely wipe the three voting provisions.

“The Majority’s decision to gut the factual findings of the district court and to advance legal standards without precedent in order to shut the most vulnerable out of the political process must be subjected to the natural antiseptic of sunlight,” he wrote. “The unfettered right to vote is the bedrock of a free and democratic society — without it, such a society cannot stand. This right is fundamental.

“It is the most valuable right a person possesses, because without it, all other rights are meaningless.”

Known as a champion for civil rights, Keith is a graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School. He was the first African-American chief judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In August, it was announced Keith would serve as co-grand marshal for the 90th America’s Thanksgiving Parade this year in Detroit.

Keith has made headlines with blockbuster rulings through his decades on the bench.

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

Years later, he handed down a 2002 decision prohibiting then-President George W. Bush from holding secret deportation hearings for suspected terrorists. That ruling led to one of his most-quoted comments, which was repeated in the opening lines of his dissent Tuesday for the Ohio voting law case: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”


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Twitter: @HollyPFournier