The Honorable Damon J. Keith
Damon J. Keith was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977. Prior to his appointment to the Court of Appeals, Judge Keith served as Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Judge Keith is a graduate of West Virginia State College (B.A. 1943), Howard University Law School (J.D. 1949), where he was elected Chief Justice of the Court of Peers, and Wayne State University Law School (LL.M. 1956).
As a member of the federal judiciary, Judge Keith has consistently stood as a courageous defender of the constitutional and civil rights of all people. In United States v. Sinclair, commonly referred to as the Keith Decision, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith’s landmark ruling prohibiting President Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Keith was heralded for that decisionin Joseph Gouldens' book, "The Benchwarmers," as “a prime example of an independent federal judge” who “had the courage to say ‘no” in the face of “a presidency which likened itself to a ‘sovereign.” “The strength of the judiciary,” Goulden wrote, “is rooted in just such independence as that displayed by Keith.”
More recently, in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Judge Keith stood up to President George W. Bush during the aftermath of 9/11. Writing for a unanimous United States Court of Appeals panel, Judge Keith memorably declared “Democracies die behind closed doors,” and ruled it unlawful for the Bush administration to conduct deportation hearings in secret whenever the government asserted that the people involved might be linked to terrorism. In his September 2, 2002, op-ed titled, "Secrecy is Our Enemy," New York Times columnist Bob Herbert lauded Judge Keith’s opinion as “forceful” and “eloquent,” noting, “You want an American hero? A real hero? I nominate Judge Damon J. Keith of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.”
Judge Keith has also vigorously enforced the nation’s civil rights laws, most notably in the areas of employment and education. In Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co., Judge Keith ruled the Detroit Edison Company had practiced systematic racial discrimination, resulting in fines against the company of $4 million and against the employee union of $250,000, and an order for the company to institute an aggressive affirmative action program. Within the context of education, in Davis v. School District of Pontiac, Judge Keith found that the city had unlawfully built schools to coincide with segregated housing patterns. Accordingly, he ordered the implementation of city-wide busing to promote integration and to guarantee equal protection under the law for all children.
Judge Keith’s fidelity to the U.S. Constitution has been well recognized. In 1985, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger appointed Judge Keith Chairman of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Committee for the Sixth Circuit. In 1987, Judge Keith was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve as the National Chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. In recognition of Judge Keith’s service to the Bicentennial Committee, Bill of Rights plaques commemorating this important constitutional anniversary bear Judge Keith’s name. These plaques adorn the waIls of courthouses and law schools throughout the United States and Guam, as well as the FBI Headquarters and the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Center in Washington, D.C.
Judge Keith is also the recipient of numerous awards, most notably, the NAACP’s highest award, the Spingarn Medal, whose past recipients include Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and General Cohn Powell. Other prominent honors bestowed upon Judge Keith include the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award, the Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Anti-Defamation League, and the Detroit Urban League’s Distinguished Warrior Award.
In 1998, Judge Keith was chosen to receive the Edward J. Deviti Distinguished Service to Justice Award. The recipient of the Devitt Award is selected each year by a panel comprised of a United States Supreme Court justice, a federal circuit judge, and a federal district court judge, and honors the recipient as an outstanding federal judge of national stature. The American Judicature Society administers the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award on behalf of the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation. This award is considered the highest award that can be bestowed on a member of the Federal judiciary. It reflects the extraordinarily high degree of regard in which honorees are held by their colleagues on the Federal bench.
In January 2000, at the Eighth Annual Trumpet Awards in Atlanta, Georgia, Turner Broadcasting Systems presented Judge Keith with the Pinnacle Award. In February 2000, Judge Keiths career was profiled by Court TV as part of a program saluting “Americas Great Legal Minds” in honor of Black History Month. The National Urban League also presented Judge Keith with its highest honor, the Whitney Young Award, at its National Conference in July 2004.
In 2005, Harvard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies included Judge Keith in its African American National Biography, a collection of biographies profiling eminent African Americans. Also in 2005, Judge Keith served as co-chair of the National Victory Celebration for the Farewell to Mrs. Rosa Parks, organizing memorial services across the country for Parks. Twenty-six years earlier, Judge Keith had proudly presented Parks with the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Award, in Louisville, Kentucky.
As a community leader, Judge Keith organized local businessmen to provide housing for Parks, after she was robbed and physically assaulted in her house. In 2004, Judge Keith was again responsible for rallying members of Detroit’s African-American business community, this time to save the city’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History from bankruptcy. The Detroit Board of Education has dedicated one of its primary schools in his honor, naming it “The Damon J. Keith Elementary School.’
Judge Keith has received over 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. His most recent is an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree bestowed by Harvard University, on June 5, 2008. The citation states “Avatar of independence, champion of equal justice under law, a just and humane jurist who has shared and shaped the action and passion of his time.” Harvard’s honorary degree provides only a small window into Judge Keith’s distinguished career.
In 2010, Judge Keith was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta.
In 2011, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School opened its doors. Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony a year earlier, offered a congratulatory video message, and columnist and author Mitch Albom gave the keynote address honoring Judge Keith as a stalwart defender of justice. In addition to promoting research and community outreach related to civil rights and racial justice, the Center—which honors and memorializes the life and legacy of Judge Keith as a civil rights icon—is a leading source for the legal history of the Civil Rights Movement and the historic accomplishments of American lawyers and judges dedicated to social justice.
A biography of Judge Keith, written by columnist Trevor W. Coleman, with a Foreword by Mitch Albom (a New York Times best-selling author), is tentatively titled "Crusader for Justice: The Life and Amazing Times of Federal Judge Damon J. Keith." It is scheduled to be published in early 2013, by Wayne State University Press.
Judge Keith was married for 53 years to the late Rachel Boone Keith, M.D. They had three daughters, Gilda Keith, Debbie Keith, and Cecile Keith-Brown. Cecile and her husband, Daryle Brown, are the parents of Judge Keith’s granddaughters, Nia and Camara.