Federal judge reflects on 'priceless' experiences


– Photo by Robert Chase

Pictured at his 90th birthday party this past summer, Judge Damon J. Keith was saluted by scores of well-wishers on the milestone occasion. A few weeks later during a speech at Albion College, Judge Keith urged students to be vigilant in upholding the principles of equality. “If you witness injustice, each of you must speak out,” Keith said. “If we turn a blind eye to any source of injustice, we jeopardize the integrity of democracy.”

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Judge Damon J. Keith, now in his 45th year on the federal bench, has been asked to give countless speeches during his illustrious legal career.

In particular, he has been a sought-after speaker by scores of colleges, including a host of Ivy League schools and other prominent universities across the nation.

The distinguished U.S. Court of Appeals judge recently delivered an address at a special convocation at Albion College, a small private school with a strong academic reputation. The title of his talk was “Discovering New Oceans.”

“My message to the students was quite simple: You won’t be able to discover new oceans until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” said Keith, whose speech drew a packed audience and merited two standing ovations.

In many respects, the message could serve as a metaphor of his life. He acknowledged as much in a recent wide-ranging interview, little more than a month after he celebrated his 90th birthday.

“I am an ordinary man who has had the good fortune in my life — in my career — to be surrounded by extraordinary people and to experience extraordinary times,” said Keith, who as appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1977, some 10 years after he was named to the U.S. District Court bench in Detroit, where he served as chief judge prior to being elevated to the Sixth Circuit seat. “Yet, I also recognized early on in my life that there are no givens, that at times you need to take risks, to go against the grain if you’re going to achieve your goals.”

He was just seven years old when his father taught him a timeless lesson. It is true story that he told in a column he wrote for The Detroit Free Press in December 1963, part of a “My Most Memorable Christmas” series published by the daily.

“My father worked as a laborer at the Ford Motor Company and had taught us to expect only a few toys; some new, and some used,” Keith said, noting that times were particularly tough for his parents as they raised seven children. “On Christmas of 1928, my gift from Santa was a bright and shining green wagon. I was delighted and thrilled.”

A year later when the yuletide rolled around, “Our country was caught in a great depression, and my father joined the thousands of other men who were unemployed,”
Keith vividly recalled. “Despite the fact that my dad was out of work during the Christmas of 1929, my brothers, sisters and I continued our ritual of asking Santa for the things we wanted most.”

In the meantime, that spanking new wagon of the year before was beginning to show its age.

“It was rusty and one of the wheels had come off,” Keith related. “In fact, for several months it stood unused on our back porch.”

On Christmas Eve, father and son took a walk to a hardware store on Warren Avenue, some nine blocks from the family home. On the way, they talked about the true meaning of Christmas while admiring the window decorations in the neighborhood homes.

“When we arrived at the store, my father asked the clerk for a wheel, one that would fit my old wagon,” Keith said. “It was a brand new wheel. My dad paid 10 cents and turned to me and said: ‘Son, this is your Christmas present. This is all that your mother and dad can give you.’”

As they left the store, his father discussed what Christmas meant to him. It proved to be a profound lesson, one that still resonates with Keith today.

“He said that we as a family should be thankful to God for the food on our table, the roof over our heads,” Keith stated. “That God had allowed us to be together for another year without a link in our family chain being broken; and that He had blessed us with good health and we as a unit had the love that Christmas was all about.”

Now, some 83 years later, Keith looks upon his strong faith as a guiding principle throughout his legal career, which is dotted with a series of high profile cases that have helped define his legacy.

It was by chance, perhaps even by “divine intervention,” that he was assigned a case in 1971 that involved the prosecution of White Panther members John Sinclair, Larry “Pun” Plamondon, and John Forrest with conspiracy to destroy government property. Plamondon also was charged with bombing an office of the Central Intelligence Agency in Ann Arbor. The case originally was assigned to Judge Talbot Smith, but as an Ann Arbor resident Smith elected to step aside for obvious reasons, fearing that the Ann Arbor-based radical group would target him and his family for harm. Smith suggested that an outside judge be appointed to hear the case.

Keith, as the newest member of the U.S. District Court bench in Detroit, was of a different mindset, convincing Chief Judge Ralph Freeman that the judges on the court had a responsibility to “meet the challenges of such cases head-on” and that they “should not shy away from controversial or difficult cases” in spite of any inherent risks. Freeman agreed, placing the case in a blind draw, which coincidentally Keith “won.”

“I was the ‘chosen one,’” Keith said with a broad smile, noting that the fortuitous turn of events would enable him to leave a lasting imprint on the law.

In response to a pre-trial motion by the defense, Keith ordered the government to disclose all electronic surveillance information that it had obtained during wiretapping of the defendants. The government appealed the order, filing a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the ruling. The appeal was denied in a 2-1 decision by the 6th Circuit.

“A number of my colleagues kept telling me that my decision would be reversed, that there was no way I was going to get the better of President Nixon and Attorney General (John) Mitchell in a 4th Amendment case that had such important national security implications,” Keith recalled. “Since the government had filed for a writ of mandamus, I needed to obtain my own lawyer to argue the case as it made its way up to the Supreme Court. In effect, I was being sued by the President. Bill Gossett (a past president of the American Bar Association) took on the case pro bono, and he later said that it was the most important case he ever argued during his career.”

In what would become known as the “Keith Case,” the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts, affirming them by a unanimous 8-0 vote.

It would be just one of many high profile cases over which Keith presided, including the Pontiac school desegregation battle that became a lightning rod in George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign.

“In 1970, in response to a suit filed a year earlier by the NAACP that charged that Pontiac Schools were deliberately segregated, I ordered the school district to begin a busing plan that would help achieve integration,” Keith recalled. “There was an incredible amount of opposition to the plan. There was marching, there was picketing, and there were threats of violence.”

The threats became real when 10 Pontiac school buses were destroyed in a bombing carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan, five of whom were found guilty in 1973 of the crime.

“My house was being guarded by federal marshals at the time after members of the Klan said something to the effect,  ‘If they killed Jesus Christ, then we can certainly kill Judge Keith,’” he related. “It certainly was unsettling to be threatened, but I couldn’t let it deter me.”

Keith would take a similar stand in a 1971 Hamtramck housing discrimination case that still reverberates today, some 40 years after he ruled that the city practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build affordable new housing for displaced residents.

“It was a clear case of discrimination against blacks living in Hamtramck at the time,” Keith said, noting that it was tied to the construction of I-75 at the time. “It was a systematic removal without any plans to ever relocate them to another section of the city.”

It would take until 2010 before the first semblance of housing remedies would take place, according to Keith, a graduate of Northwestern High School in Detroit.

A graduate of Howard Law School (where he was elected chief justice of the Court of Peers) and Wayne State University Law School (LL.M.), Keith has presided over a host of other noteworthy cases, particularly the 1973 decision of Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co. in which he ruled that the giant utility had practiced systematic racial discrimination, fining the company $4 million and ordering it to implement an affirmative action program. Judge Keith also fined the employee union $250,000 for not properly representing its members.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Judge Keith, as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals, was called upon to write the majority opinion in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, a case that curbed the Bush administration’s ability to close deportation hearings to the public on account of national security concerns.

In his opinion Keith wrote: “Democracies die behind closed doors,” words that have come to define his legal career and are etched on the walls of the recently opened Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights addition to Wayne State Law School.

“The day that the Keith Center opened was such a highlight for me and my family,” Keith said. “I was overwhelmed by all the support that was received in making it happen, and it is a reflection of what can be accomplished when people pull together in the face of challenges.”