Wayne Law remembers Judge Damon J. Keith
Civil rights champion Damon J. Keith, who served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977, died Sunday, April 28, 2019 at the age of 96.
Wayne State University Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, dedicated in 2011, was named in honor of Keith, who earned a master of laws degree from the school in 1956.
Keith’s legal influence and commitment to equality for all in the American justice system helped change the course of the nation.
Over the decades he ruled on key cases that involved segregation, housing discrimination, job discrimination, affirmative action and freedom of the press. Some of his most notable rulings include prohibiting President Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping in 1971 and the George W. Bush administration from conducting deportation hearings in secret in 2002.
From that case came his much-quoted statement: “Democracies die behind closed doors,” forever emblazoned on the entrance to the center that bears his name at Wayne Law.
The grandson of slaves, Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, and graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939. He earned a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College in 1943. After serving in the U.S. Army, he graduated from Howard University School of Law with a J.D. in 1949. He married the late Dr. Rachel Boone in 1953, and the couple had three daughters.
He served as co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1964, and was nominated by President Johnson to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1967. He became the court’s chief judge, and in 1977, President Carter nominated Keith to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He served for more than 50 years on the federal bench.
Keith received more than 40 honorary degrees, including one from Harvard University, and countless awards and distinctions, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1974 and the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award in 1998. The award is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a member of the federal judiciary.
Keith’s law clerks have included former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a number of judges and law professors, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Rashad Hussain, who served as deputy associate counsel to President Obama.
His award-winning biography, Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, written by Wayne Law Professor Peter Hammer, director of the Keith Center, and journalist Trevor Coleman, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2015. The book inspired a documentary, “Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” directed by Jesse Nesser, which premiered in Detroit in 2015.
The Keith Center building at Wayne Law houses an exhibit area featuring a digital, abridged version of Marching Toward Justice, which details the nation’s centuries-long journey toward – and sometimes away from – equal justice for all, and memorabilia from Judge Keith’s life and work.
The Damon J. Keith Collection of African-American Legal History, the country’s first and only archive dedicated to the perpetual care of the papers, artifacts and memorabilia of African-American legal history, is a partnership between the Law School and the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State. The collection includes Saluting a Giant, which tells the story of Judge Keith in photographs. He donated his personal papers to the Reuther Library in 1994.
The family of Judge Damon J. Keith has requested that gifts in his memory be made to the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School to empower the next generation of civil rights leaders. Wayne State will notify the family of your thoughtful contribution. Make a gift here.
Contact: Kaylee Place
President M. Roy Wilson
It’s a sad day. Judge Damon Jerome Keith passed away earlier today, and we are all mourning the loss of this outstanding civil rights pioneer, federal judge and great friend of Wayne State. I had the honor of being sworn in as the 12th president of Wayne State University by Judge Keith, but it meant even more to me to have met the man. At my swearing in ceremony Judge Keith said, “For Wayne State to be great, it has to be good.” I have used those apt words as my guiding light in the leadership of Wayne State.
A quick litany of his accomplishments wouldn’t adequately tell the story of this great man, who served 10 U.S. presidents and led from the bench efforts to racially desegregate schools, at a time when there was overwhelming opposition to such a move. His bravery and compassion marked every decision he made in his position as a federal judge, and we are all grateful for the momentous change he affected in the national social conscience.
Judge Keith received his master of laws from Wayne State in 1956 and remained committed to his alma mater throughout the rest of his life. We opened the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights on our campus in 2011 to promote the educational, economic and political power of underrepresented communities in urban settings. Judge Keith was deeply committed to civil rights for all people, and the Center upholds his values in everything it does.
Greatness is not randomly conferred on people. It comes from a place in the heart and the soul that defies easy explanation. Damon J. Keith was a great man. The Wayne State community mourns his passing and pledges to honor his legacy through our work in the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and by striving to prepare the next generation of leaders to carry his work forward.
Dean Richard A. Bierschbach
We’ve lost one of the greatest civil rights champions of our time. For more than 50 years, Judge Damon J. Keith has been an unwavering voice for those who have been unjustly silenced. As dean of Wayne State University Law School, proud home to the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, I know that his legacy will live on in the eyes and hearts of our Damon J. Keith Scholars and every student who learns the law in the center that bears his name.
Judge Keith was the first member of his family to earn a college degree and went on to earn his master of laws from Wayne Law in 1956. For some of our students, he is the reason they came to law school, and specifically to our law school. Because of Judge Keith, those students are out in the world changing it for the better.
Words feel inadequate to describe the life of a man who changed the fabric of a nation and how much he meant to the Wayne Law community — he was an extraordinary person and a compass for courage and justice, but that does not even begin to capture the full measure of his character or the impact he had and will continue to have on all of us.
Professor Peter J. Hammer
Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights
The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights mourns the passing of our namesake, federal Judge Damon J. Keith at 96. Judge Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922. He spent his career, as a lawyer and as a judge, seeking to ensure that the phrase "equal justice under law" applies to all members of our society.
The Keith Center is dedicated to training the next generation of civil rights lawyers. For students at Wayne State University Law School, Judge Keith was a hero and an inspiration. The jurisprudence of his leading cases showed our students how one could move mountains. Judge Keith’s biography, Crusader for Justice, highlighted his great humanity and capacity for love. The Keith Scholars program at Wayne Law will ensure that these lessons will be passed on for generations of lawyers to come.
I stress to students that it is important not only to understand what Judge Keith did, but to ask what a young Damon J. Keith would do today. The Keith Center addresses structural racism as our generation’s primary civil rights challenge. We need to undertake this struggle with the same energy, creativity and dedication that Judge Keith applied to the challenges of his day.
Today marks the passing of a legal giant, but the Keith Center remains committed to ensuring that Judge Keith’s legal legacy remains an ongoing work of passion in the city he loved so much.
Hon. Carl Levin
Former U.S. senator, chair of the Levin Center at Wayne Law
Damon Keith left our community and our nation a better, fairer place for all our people, and future generations will be the beneficiaries of his relentless pursuit of justice. My memories of Damon from 55 years ago remain vivid to this day, because his vision was so clear and compelling when he became co-chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at its inception in 1964 and I was the Commission's first general counsel. The Commission took on issues that were not yet established, like discriminatory practices in housing and by city officials. As a lawyer I was advising caution, but Damon was urging "full speed ahead." Invariably his instincts were right, because they were grounded in fundamental values. His opinions as a judge will stand the test of time because he saw the law as an instrument of justice. Damon Keith's character provided timeless reminders of how following a moral path in life can bring fulfillment and joy to those who strive for it and lasting benefit for the community of which one is a part.
Hon. Marilyn J. Kelly
Distinguished Jurist Residence at Wayne Law, member of the WSU Board of Governors, Wayne Law class of 1971
We grieve the passing of Judge Damon J. Keith, a pillar of strength, vision and integrity in the legal community. As an attorney and as a judge, he stood where it was right to have stood. For us at Wayne, Judge Keith’s life and works continue as beacons lighting the high road for our students as they grow into legal practitioners, judges and government leaders.
Hon. Jocelyn Benson
Michigan Secretary of State, former dean of Wayne Law, Keith clerk
Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights. His decisions from the bench prevented the federal government from infringing on individual liberties and helped to battle systemic racism in corporations, municipalities and schools. I first came to Michigan to clerk for Judge Keith, who became my mentor. I was proud to serve as dean at the law school that houses the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. His quote, “Democracies die behind closed doors,” is emblazoned above the center’s entrance at 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.
Hon. Dana Nessel
Michigan Attorney General, Wayne Law class of 1994
The passing of Judge Damon Keith marks the end of an incredible life’s journey - not just for one man but for a nation that craved his leadership. For more than half a century Judge Keith ruled from the bench with compassion, integrity and justice - an example for all of us. He was an inspiration by word and by deed to me and to every lawyer and political leader I know. He once wrote ‘Democracies die behind closed doors...When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.’ We should honor his memory and his legacy by living those words.
Wayne Law faculty member, Keith clerk
Judge Keith was a rare combination of brilliance, boldness, and humility. Many will achieve great wealth and fame. Few will broker those prized achievements to advance the cause of freedom. Judge Keith did that and then some. Words will never capture his legacy and the impact he has had on social justice. His unrelenting and fearless striving for justice, equality, and liberation were a wonder to see. I can only hope that the rest of my days live up to his legacy.
President of Wayne Law's Black Law Students Association, Damon J. Keith Scholar
Judge Keith is proof that we all can achieve the unimaginable. The Damon J. Keith Scholarship afforded many law students, including myself, the opportunity to attend law school. His impact as an advocate and judge has opened doors for us to pursue our dreams and legal careers. As Keith Scholars, we will ensure his legacy lives on in each of us.
Robert A. Sedler
Wayne Law faculty member
In my long career as a constitutional law professor and civil rights lawyer, it was my great privilege to have had the opportunity for numerous interactions with Judge Damon J. Keith.
Judge Keith was a pioneering judge who rendered landmark decisions in many constitutional cases, propelling the Constitution forward, so to speak, to bring about racial equality and the protection of individual rights in the American constitutional system.
I had followed some of those landmark decisions before I came to Detroit and Wayne State in 1977. In 1970, as a District Judge in Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac, Judge Keith found that the Pontiac School District had intentionally made a series of decisions about attendance zones and school closures and openings that resulted in racially segregated schools. He ordered the school district to integrate its schools.
In 1971, in United States v. United States District Court, which has come to be known as the “Keith case,” Judge Keith held that there was no “national security” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, so that the government’s warrantless wiretapping of suspects in a “bombing conspiracy” case was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Judge Keith. No warrant, no wiretapping, “national security” or otherwise. Ever since, the government has always had to get a warrant for any wiretapping in the name of “national security.”
In 1979, I wrote a friend of the court brief for New Detroit Inc. in Baker v. City of Detroit, where a Sixth Circuit panel that included Judge Keith upheld the City of Detroit’s affirmative action plan for the city’s police department. The court found that there had been a long history of racial discrimination against African Americans in the hiring and promotion of police officers and approved an affirmative action that required the hiring and promotion of one African American officer for every white officer until a 50-50 percent ratio had been achieved.
Perhaps Judge Keith’s most famous decision — and that for which he will be long remembered — is Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, in 2002, where he wrote an opinion holding that an order of the Attorney General closing deportation hearings in “special interest” cases violated the First Amendment. The opinion included these immortal words: “Democracies die behind closed doors.”
In 1995, I litigated an important First Amendment case before Judge Keith. Most of the players on Central Michigan’s basketball team were African Americans from Detroit. They used a colloquial term frequently used by African American athletes that means an athlete who is “fearless, mentally strong and tough.” Although it’s meaning is clearly different, it sounds like the derogatory “N-word,” particularly when used by whites. When the university found out that the players were using the term, and that the white coach had used it to motivate the players, they invoked the university’s “discriminatory harassment” policy. They prohibited the players from using that term and terminated the coach’s contract. I represented the players and the coach in a First Amendment challenge to the policy and to the coach’s dismissal.
The policy was similar to the University of Michigan’s “discriminatory harassment” policy, which I successfully challenged in 1989 on behalf of the Michigan ACLU in a case before U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn. Judge Keith wrote the opinion for the Sixth Circuit. He agreed with Cohn that the policy on its face was unconstitutionally overbroad and vague, in violation of the First Amendment and enjoined the university from enforcing it. The coach’s claim did not fare so well. Keith ruled that his use of this term to motivate the players was not speech on a matter of public concern and did not involve academic freedom. Although I was disappointed with that part of the opinion, I had to concede that his analysis was persuasive.
I treasure the opportunity that I have had to interact with Judge Damon J. Keith and engage in a remembrance of that opportunity upon his passing.
Janice Kittel Mann
In 1986 I was pregnant with my second child. I was determined to complete an oral argument in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals despite the fact that I was nine months pregnant and due within the next two weeks. Judge Keith was on my panel that day. As I stood and approached the podium to begin my oral argument it was clear that my time was imminent. As I began, “May it please the Court”, Judge Keith interrupted me and said, kindly, 'would you be more comfortable continuing your argument from the counsel table?' 'No, thank you, I’m fine,' I gamely replied. Without missing a beat, he said, 'Well then, indulge me, because it would certainly make me more comfortable.' And so, amidst an amused murmur, I took my seat and restarted my argument from the seated comfort of the counsel table. I always fondly remember Judge Keith’s ability to call out the elephant in the room with wit and compassion, on this and other occasions.
General counsel and associate dean of external affairs, Thomas M. Cooley Law School
As the inaugural fund-raising officer for the Damon J. Keith Law Collection at Wayne State University, I had the honor of working with Judge Keith to finance and organize the national tour of the Marching Toward Justice exhibit. To sit in his chambers and observe his successful telephone call to President Clinton with an invitation to speak at the tour’s kickoff event was to witness the greatness that marked Judge Keith’s entire career: a combination of legal stature, moral weight, and humility. Joining President Clinton and Judge Keith on the stage at that event in Washington, D.C. were Mrs. Rosa Parks, Mrs.Thurgood Marshall, and then-Wayne State University President Irvin D. Reid. The event introduced Wayne State to many luminaries of the civil rights movement and leaders of the legal profession in D.C., and brought great honor to the university. Judge Keith, President Reid, and I then took the exhibit from coast to coast, where we spoke not about how the “March Toward Justice” was complete, but rather about how far we still have to go. Judge Keith was widely and accurately known by many as a great judge, a champion of civil rights, a lion of metropolitan Detroit, and a devoted husband and father. But to many of us who had the privilege of knowing him well, he was a fatherly mentor, a dear friend, a faithful correspondent, and a quintessential example of strength, faith, and dignity. We will greatly miss his leadership, wisdom, and grace.
One of the many good things about my tenure with the Archer administration was that I got to meet so many of Detroit's great icons, and Judge Keith was chief among them. My most vivid memory was an event at the DIA during the Ball African where Judge Myron (Mike) Wahls was holding forth on the piano and Mayor Dennis Archer and Judge Keith were enjoying the moment intensely. Those three legal giants, relaxed yet infectious with mirth, is a memory that will stay with me always. Judge Keith's legal profundity is legendary and others will speak eloquently of his ginormous footprint. I wanted to comment on the joy he was capable of expressing through the twinkle of his eyes and his expansive, brilliant smile when he was relaxed and in the company of good people.
Tamira Chapman '07
A pioneer for civil rights and justice, Judge Damon Keith greatly inspired the people of Detroit and I am no exception. My relationship with Judge Keith arose during a particularly challenging time in my life. During my second year of law school, my grandfather received a diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer. To help manage his medical expenses, I drew on a 401K account that I was using to fund my law school education. I completed an application for the Judge Keith scholarship offered through the Wolverine Bar Association and made it though to the interview stage. My grandfather passed away from his illness and my scholarship interview fell on the same day as his funeral. I went to the funeral that morning and completed the interview that evening. I ultimately received the scholarship, which was enough to fund the remainder of my law school education. I wrote Judge Keith a letter to express my appreciation, but I had no idea that the letter would lead to such a meaningful relationship. When my swearing in ceremony arrived, I was humbled to have Judge Keith swear me in personally. Incredibly honored by this distinction, I brought my mother and younger brother me with to the ceremony. Upon walking into his chambers, I was immediately taken aback by the pictures on the wall. There - among pictures of the judge with such icons as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - was my name. The judge led me directly to the plaque and told me that he received my thank you letter. It was a full-circle moment, and it meant the world to me. With more than 50 years of service on the bench, Judge Keith established his place in history as an undeniable civil rights and legal icon. His work demonstrated his unshakable commitment to civil liberties, including his 1971 ruling to bar the Nixon administration from conducting warrantless domestic wiretaps - a decision that was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. I am so grateful for Judge Keith’s words of encouragement on the day of my swearing in ceremony. Even with his incredible legacy, he always made room for the next generation. He believed in mentorship and consistently sewed into new lawyers like me. Judge Keith pioneered a new way forward for us all and he will truly be missed.