Judge Damon J. Keith, grandson of slaves and champion of civil rights and civil liberties, dies aged 96
Judge Damon J. Keith, an army veteran, a grandson of slaves, and a prominent figure in the civil rights scene whose rulings on controversial federal governmental policies proved to be paradigm-shifting, died this past Sunday, April 28. He was 96 years old.
According to the Associated Press, Keith died in Detroit, the very same city where he first held a position in public office and rose to prominence after President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him to the vacant seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Keith would go on to serve more than 50 years in the federal courts, never officially retiring and dying in office. Before his death, even in his old age, Keith heard cases about four times a year at the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Paying tribute to the judge, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement, "During his more than 50 years on the federal bench, he handed down rulings that have safeguarded some of our most important and cherished civil liberties, stopping illegal government wiretaps and secret deportation hearings, as well as ending racial segregation in Pontiac (Michigan) schools."
Indeed the civil rights theme was one that was prominent throughout Keith's life and career. Even before his nomination to public office, in 1964, he was elected to the co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and was a key player in the trying times following the 1967 Detroit race riots that left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and over 7,200 arrested.
Then, in 1970, Keith ordered a bus policy and new boundaries in the Pontiac, Michigan, school district to break up racial segregation. A year after that, he found that Hamtramck, Michigan, had illegally destroyed black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal with the federal government's help.
He ordered that 200 housing units be built for blacks as reparation, though that case is still making the rounds even now due to disputes over property taxes and the slow pace of construction.
While those groundbreaking rulings went relatively unheralded, he would attract national attention with his ruling in the now-infamous United States vs Sinclair case in 1971. Keith ruled that Nixon's Attorney General, John N. Mitchell, had to disclose the transcripts of the illegal wiretaps that he had authorized of radical individuals in the US without obtaining a search warrant.
The Nixon administration not only challenged that ruling in a higher court but also filed a lawsuit directly against Keith, though the judge would ultimately prevail. His ruling was first upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and then, none other than the US Supreme Court.
That ruling would later prove pivotal in President Jimmy Carter signing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 which established procedures for the physical and electronic surveillance and collection of "foreign intelligence information" between "foreign powers" and "agents of foreign powers" suspected of espionage or terrorism.
He would once again lead the charge for civil liberties in Detroit Free Press vs Ashcroft (2002). Writing for a unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Keith opined that the Bush administration could not enforce an absolute closure of deportation hearings in "special interest" cases as it was unconstitutional.
His opinion famously contained the line, "Democracies die behind closed doors," a variation of which — "Democracy dies in the darkness" — is now the slogan of The Washington Post.
To hear Praveen Madhiraju, Keith's former law clerk, the judge had a penchant for such poignant sayings. He revealed Keith also liked to quote the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, who said, "In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith."
They were never just empty words either. In 2016, at the age of 94, Keith slammed a 2016 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voting rights case in which the majority upheld new voting requirements that had been described as draconian.
In an opinion piece where he included the pictures of 36 civil rights martyrs, he wrote, "The utter brutality of white supremacy in its efforts to disenfranchise persons of color is the foundation for the tragedy that is the Majority's effort to roll back the progress of history. I will not forget. I cannot forget -- indeed America cannot forget — the pain, suffering, and sorrow of those who died for equal protection and for this precious right to vote."
In a 2017 interview, Keith said he was inspired by the phrase, 'Equal justice under law,' which is etched into the US Supreme Court building in Washington, as well as the lessons of Thurgood Marshall, one of his professors at Howard University and the man who became the first black Supreme Court justice in October 1967.
Keith would have no doubt done Marshall proud, and in death, leaves behind an incredible legacy and will forever be remembered as a tireless champion of civil rights and civil liberties.