Damon Keith, federal judge and civil rights icon, dies at 96

April 28, 2019, 10:44 AM

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, a long-serving federal jurist whose rulings had broad impact on southeast Michigan, died Sunday night at home. He was 96. 

Judge Damon Keith (Screenshot from Detroit News video)

The Detroit News reports:

Keith, a grandson of slaves whose judicial career spanned five decades and 10 presidents, decided cases that involved some of America's most controversial political and social issues, from school desegregation to government surveillance of citizens.

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 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.

Keith was born in Detroit in 1922, served in World War II and traced his interest in the law to a desire to battle the racism he faced after his service, The News reports in its comprehensive obituary. 

Reated post: Damon Keith Changed My Life -- 3 Women Recall an Influential Career Mentor

This 368-page biography was published in 2014. (Photo: Wayne State University Press)

On Facebook, Michael Porter posted:

Judge Keith epitomized public service in the criminal justice system and the Detroit community. My heart goes out to Luther Keith and all of the Keith family for their loss.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay issued a statement:

“This morning at approximately 6:40am, Senior United States Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, one of America’s most towering legal figures, passed away at home in Detroit, surrounded by his family. He was 96 years old. Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20 th and 21st centuries. The grandson of slaves, his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life.

His decisions ranged from prohibiting the Nixon Administration from warrantless wiretapping in national security cases, to the integration of the Detroit Police Department and the Pontiac  Public Schools. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the US District Court in 1967, where he later served as the Court’s first African American Chief Judge. In 1977 he was elevated to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the nation’s second-highest Court, by President Jimmy Carter. He was a family man possessed of uncommon humility, a leading patron of the arts, a mentor who opened doors to scores of aspiring lawyers and judges, and a proud Son of Detroit. Arrangements will be announced shortly.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell said in a statement:

“We have lost a protector of the people and I just lost another good friend. Judge Keith was an example of the best of Michigan. John and Damon worked closely together for many years in fighting for equality for all. We are losing many giants who stood against enormous odds, lived in historical times and opened doors wider for all of us. Their spirit, courage and wisdom needs to live on."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said:

“Judge Damon Keith was a civil rights icon. In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others. Because of his strength, his determination, and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it. We should honor Judge Keith’s legacy by working together to build a Michigan where everybody, no matter who they are or where they come from, can get ahead.”

Stephen Henderson of WDET and Detroit Public Television wrote on Facebook:

I loved Damon Keith. Not just for the consistent, explosive blows he struck for justice of all kinds. Not just for the barriers he smashed, and then made sure others followed him through to the other side. I loved him for his humor and wit, his incredible grace and support, and for that gentle, loving look I’d get, any time I saw him.

I’ve always considered it an extraordinary truth in my life that I knew him, that his amazing life touched mine in big and small-picture ways. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said:

Judge Keith left as indelible a mark on this nation and our city as any jurist in history. 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 the racial segregation of Pontiac schools. Here in Detroit, he opened the doors for countless young law clerks, many of who have gone on to become judges themselves.  

I have so many fond memories of Judge Keith. I was humbled and honored the two times he administered the oath of office when I was sworn in as Mayor. I will always treasure the Thanksgiving Day I spent with him in 2016, driving him in the parade as he served as Grand Marshal.

Henderson interviewed Keith in 2014 for "American Black Journal" on Detroit Public Television.

This story will be updated. 

Read more:  The Detroit News

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Potd_img_8262_379 Abstract painted door on Saint Aubin Street and Gratiot Avenue, near Eastern Market.

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