Federal Judge Damon Keith, who authored landmark rulings on civil liberties, dies at 96

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Judge Damon J. Keith (Senior Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court) is photographed in his office in the Federal courthouse in Detroit on Thursday, May 13, 2010. PATRICIA BECK

By Oralandar Brand-Williams, The Detroit News

Long-serving federal Judge Damon Keith, who decided cases that involved some of America’s most controversial political and social issues, died early Sunday morning, family members said. He was 96.

Keith, a grandson of slaves whose judicial career spanned five decades and 10 presidents, decided cases from school desegregation to government surveillance of citizens.

“His whole body of work as a jurist is inspiring to anybody,” said Chief Judge Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern Division of Michigan.

Luther Keith, the judge’s nephew, said Sunday “for the family it’s a tremendous loss (and) for the nation it’s a tremendous loss because of how he changed the legal landscape in important decisions locally and nationally. He was revered for his willingness to stand up for justice … standing up to the president … standing up to companies that wanted to discriminate against African Americans … standing up for immigrants.

“…It’s just a loss. He can’t be replaced.”

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

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

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.

In 2002, Keith rebuked the George W. Bush 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.

“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,” Hood said, citing a famous quote from one of Keith’s rulings: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”

Damon Jerome Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922. He earned a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College in 1943 and served in the U.S. military in the European Theater during World War II.

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 from his wartime service.

He enrolled at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. There, he studied under Thurgood Marshall, who went on to lead the legal fight to end legalized school segregation that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Keith, who received his law degree from Howard in 1949, recalled the advice he received from Marshall, who went on to become the first African American on the nation’s highest court.

“He told us at Howard’s law school that ‘equal justice under law,’ those four words etched in the Supreme Court, were written by white men, and when you leave this law school as lawyers, make the country live up to it … those words ‘equal justice under law,'” Keith told The News in 2017. “Voting rights are the most important constitutional rights in the country, and men and women died for that precious right.”

Keith faced persistent racial indignities as he studied to become an attorney, practiced law and rose to sit on one of the nation’s highest courts.

He recalled 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 that I would become a federal judge. I am just fortunate that God made it possible,” Keith told The News in 2017.

Keith earned a master’s of law degree from Wayne State University Law School in 1956 and was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson. Keith, who served as chief judge of the district court, was elevated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth District in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

As a judge, Keith confronted some of the most divisive issues that stemmed from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the biography “Crusader For Justice,” co-written Peter Hammer and Trevor Coleman, the judge expressed his surprise at receiving death threats after ordering busing to desegregate the Pontiac schools.

“I didn’t know there would be such hatred,” Keith said.

In another civil rights case, Keith ruled in 1973 that Detroit Edison Co. had engaged in racial discrimination. He issued fines against the utility and ordered the company to begin an affirmative action program.

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

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.

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.

Judge Craig Strong of Wayne County Circuit Court said Keith left a lasting legal legacy.

“People that are familiar with his cases understand the impact he had on civil rights,” said Strong, who called Keith a “national treasure.”

In the mid-1990s, Keith transitioned from active to senior status with the federal appeals court but continued to write opinions, typically hearing three or four cases a year.

In 2016, 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.

During his career, Keith mentored some of the country’s most prominent legal minds, including former Michigan Attorney General and 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 for Keith, said the veteran jurist 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.”

“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,” she said. “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 was “a transformational figure” locally through his civic and political involvement and nationally through his contributions to the civil rights movement.

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

Keith received more than 40 honorary degrees and some of the highest honors from civic, academic and civil rights groups across the country. In 2011, Wayne State opened the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights in the university’s law school.

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

He also received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, the highest award that can be bestowed on a member of the federal judiciary.

In later years, Keith hosted his popular annual Soul Food Luncheon in which he brought legal, civic and community leaders together to honor an African-American leader for contribution to the community.

Keith was married for 53 years to Dr. Rachel Boone, who died in 2007. He is survived by daughters Cecile Keith Brown, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith and granddaughters Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown.

This article originally appeared in The Detroit News.

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