RIP Damon Keith, The Once And Forever Crusader For Justice

It is with a heavy heart I report that one of the finest, and most righteous, judges in American history has passed away. Judge Damon Jerome Keith was a giant. In a field of giants, Judge Keith stood tall as a special giant. I wish I knew a better and smarter way to put it, but I do not. Damon Keith was not just born on the Fourth of July, but literally tutored by Thurgood Marshall, and never forgot the lessons he learned.

From the Detroit News (Please, do read the whole obituary; you will be glad you did):

Long-serving federal Judge Damon Keith, who decided cases that involved some of America’s most controversial political and social issues, died early Sunday morning, family members said. He was 96.

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.

I will come back to it in a bit, but Damon Keith was central to a lot of what this blog did when we started.

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 recalled receiving death threats, and the year after his decision, 10 Pontiac school buses were firebombed by members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

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.

Damon Keith issued a lot of decisions, up until nearly his dying day, as evidenced by his participation in a Sixth Circuit decision finding tire chalking to be a 4th Amendment violation, issued just a mere six days ago. When he was 96 years old. Damon Keith was a stand up man and judge, that never flinched up to the end. That is a hero.

A few of you have been around long enough to remember when Marcy and I used to occasionally do Book Salons while we were still at FDL. The proudest one I ever did was shortly before we left, and was hosting the Salon and discussion for “Crusader For Justice”, the incredible book by Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer, about the life, and love of law of Damon Keith. It is an incredible book about an incredible man. Please find it and read it, you will be a better person for having done so.

As Professor Henry Louis (Skip) Gates said in his blurb for Crusader For Justice:

No one will ever forget Judge Keith’s bold declaration in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft: “Democracies die behind closed doors”. Nor will they forget his contributions to achieving social justice and racial justice through his decisions involving discrimination, national security, and civil liberties. Judge Keith came from humble roots in Detroit. Having suffered racial injustice first hand, he had the bravery to take the phrase “equal justice under law” literally. Life experience matters, which is why diversity on the bench cannot be forsaken. Crusader For Justice, above all else, is the story of judicial courage – the story of a man unafraid to do what he knew was right.

As I said back in 2011 in the into to that Book Salon:

Fittingly, Damon Jerome Keith was born on the Fourth of July, in 1922. But Crusader For Justice opens with Keith, a graduate of Howard University Law School, working as a janitor while studying for the bar exam. The humble willingness to work to achieve is a mirror for the subsequent journey through the childhood, family background, military service in WWII and educational progression of a social justice giant. But the true Damon Keith starts to emerge with his work with the Detroit NAACP, which he helped grow to stability and significance.

From a friendship with a young Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy through the pain of the ashes from the Detroit fires and riots of 1967 summer, Coleman and Hammer portray the growing conscience for justice and equality in Keith that leads to his appointment in late 1967 to the federal bench in the Eastern District of Michigan by Lyndon Johnson.

From there, the real heart of the judicial lion roars.

Again, this is from when we did a Book Salon for “Crusader For Justice”. I cannot tell you what a great and important book it is, about a truly great and important man.

Okay, now, just for a moment, going to get back to why Damon Keith was so important to this blog. It was not just me and Marcy. Nope. It was Mary. And it is pretty fitting that, as we approach Derby Day, we get back to Mary. She wrote a three part explainer on the “Keith Case”. The formal caption was always “United States v. United States District Court”. That IS the “Keith Case”. Because of Judge Damon Keith. Here are the pertinent, and seminal, posts from Mary back in 2010.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

There is a lot to digest here. I understand this. But, if you do, you will be better off for having done so.

Thank you. Thanks forever to Mary. And thank you Judge Damon Jerome Keith. This nation owes you a debt of gratitude.

48 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    From the obit:

    “He [Thurgood Marshall] told us at Howard’s law school that ‘equal justice under law,’ those four words etched in the Supreme Court, were written by white men and when you leave this law school as lawyers, make the country live up to it … those words equal justice under law,” Keith told The News during an interview in 2017.

    Damn good advice.

    Also timely, given the White House v House Judiciary Committee stuff that’s brewing.

  2. Peterr says:

    From the comments at that FDL Book Salon came this exchange:

    Trevor W. Coleman
    I interviewed former Michigan Sen. Don Reigle for the book and he told me had President Carter been re-elected, he was prepared to nominate Judge Keith for the U.S. Supreme Court at the next opening. Of course Reagan won and the appointment went to Sandra Day O’Conner. [sic]

    bmaz, replying to Coleman:
    Well, obviously, I, like you, am biased, but man would I have loved to have seen that. Keith instead of O’Connor. The mind boggles on how history would have been changed for the better. . . .

    “Boggles” is a severe understatement.

    [Note: When Shadowproof took over hosting the old FDL posts (including the Book Salons), the comments and images disappeared. The Wayback Machine, however, still has them, if you know where to look. Link to this Book Salon is here.]

    • bmaz says:

      And note, (I know you know this, others maybe not as much) I knew/know Sandra Day. She is failing, but still very close to here. Obviously disagreed with some of her handiwork (yes, we can start with Bush v. Gore, which she herself has had regrets for late in life), but the difference between having her, as opposed to Damon Keith, is almost unfathomable. Keith would have been fantastic. And this country would be a different, and better, place.

  3. Boro says:

    Thank you Mary, and Judge Keith. I only wish I could talk with one of you fine people about my problem today.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

    It dies, too, in the hands of would be fascist racists intent on restoring America to the glories of white supremacy.

    Keith’s quote comes from the Bush Jr era. But it applies to his dad’s era, the Nixon era, the Reagan and the Trump eras. What Trump embodies has been a long time gestating. It won’t be suppressed with a single electoral victory or without people like Damon Jerome Keith.

        • roberts robot double says:

          We each have the free will to become whatever we wish on this Earth, be it a hypocrite like Trump or true Man of God like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest American of all-time, bar none. Those who actively denounce the dictates of morality based upon universal compassion and respect have more tools with which to seize and keep power, as evidenced by Dr. King’s final lesson in his martyrdom.

          God has left it up to each one of us, believer or not, to aspire to universal compassion and rid our governments of those vermin who seek to oppress others, sow enmity and destroy this Earth for their personal gain.

          This love must be fierce, but always just and as merciful as is possible.

          “On Earth as it is in Heaven” can only be attained by the work of men and women of the highest ideals, across of all the artificial divisions the Enemy of Mankind has sown in our hearts and minds.

          As with all things human, it is up to our choices, individual and collective.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      We’re not running short of their opposites.

      The NYT (which sadly goes out of its way to note Keith’s alleged regional – as opposed to NY-centric role) ends its obit with an anecdote from when Keith was 69, a longtime member of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and chairman of a national judicial conference on the Constitution.

      He stepped outside the Williamsburg, VA, conference hotel during a break. An arriving guest assumed he was a parking attendant: “Boy, park my car.”

      That was in 1991. My guess is not much has changed. Stephen Miller and Donald Trump and their ilk would be happy for it to never end. []

  5. chuck says:

    The gap between rich and everyone else in “equal justice under law” doesn’t feel any smaller lately. Especially with how the indictments concluded.

    Add to that the one-two punch of bankruptcy in the US is still health care bills + insolvency lawsuits.

    Here’s hoping Damon Keiths spirit fills the hearts of many, many more at work in the judiciary.

    • chuck says:

      Also, “Because we __chalk__ this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function, we REVERSE.” Made me smile.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Frustratingly, the US still awaits its first federal anti-lynching statute. Lynching was the cornerstone act of terror that helped maintain Jim Crow. During the halcyon days of J. Edgar Hoover, his FBI investigated liberals (e.g., producer, director, cinematographer Haskell Wexler) sometimes solely for the self-evidently radical act of supporting anti-lynching legislation.

    Federal legislation has been proposed since the days of Jim Crow. Southern Democratic Senators have been the usual suspects in keeping it from becoming law. Oddly, in 2017, the Senate passed a version that still awaits action by the House. Predictably, the Great UnEmancipator in today’s White House would veto it.

    The work so ably done by Judge Keith remains unfinished: the baton has passed and there are laps to go before we sleep.

  7. Eureka says:

    Thank you, bmaz– a fitting tribute.

    Also, I didn’t make it through all of the recommended reading (and the comments are essential, too), but have read some– and other of the posts you’ve linked written by Mary– so can see why you cherish her and her contributions.

  8. Eureka says:

    OT: Attn: EW (tho of general interest, too)– have you seen the following thread? Note esp. #2 (though graph in #8 is my fav):

    Guillaume Chaslot: “THREAD One week after the release of the Mueller report, which analysis of it did YouTube recommend from the most channels among the 1000+ channels that I monitor daily? Russia Today’s !!! 1/”

    “This video funded by the Russian government was recommended more than half a million times from more than 236 different channels. (links to and embeds yt video titled/described: “On Contact: Russiagate & Mueller Report w/ Aaron Mate
    Chris Hedges discusses with Nation reporter Aaron Mate how despite the categorical statement in Robert Mueller’s report that Donald Trump and his campaign…”) 2/”

    “So YouTube’s algorithm massively recommends Russia’s take on the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. 3/”

    “The highly-recommended video only got only 50k views. So why did the algorithm pushed it from so many channels? (links/embeds yt vid on yt algo manipulation) 4/”


    “Here I plotted the 84,695 videos that I collected last week with the number of views and the number of channels from which it is recommended. Russia Today’s take on the Mueller report is the recommendation outlier. 8/ (beautiful graph that could be used in intro stats text)”

    “Technology can enable two worlds: 1/ One where accountability keeps cheaters in check 2/ One where social media is manipulated by armies of fake accounts 9/”

    “Which world do we want to live in? 10/10”

    Thread ends with an also-pertinent sub-thread.

  9. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Mary’s wisdom was generally about two miles over my head, and she was not a woman to mess with — a horsewoman, fearless, and smart. Also, erudite.

    Lovely tribute, bmaz.
    Given our historical moment, it certainly helps crystalize what is worth working toward.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Bill Barr’s reluctance to answer formal questions from the House about the Mueller Report is NOT about “the format” the House proposes: questions primarily coming from staff lawyers instead of inexperienced, inadequately informed or unfocused House members.

    Formally, he objects to the form of questioning the GOP used against non-lawyer private citizen Christine Blasey Ford over her experiences with Brett Kavanaugh. The reality is that Bill Barr is stonewalling. It is how he made his bones for the GOP and the Bush Sr White House. He learned it at the CIA. He did it in private practice and in his years as executive vice president and general counsel for GTE. It is what he does. He is very good at it. He does it with confident dismissive arrogance, despite his Balloo Bear physicality.

    Trump is not looking forward to defending an impeachment inquiry from the House. He is defending an impeachment inquiry from the House. He’s using a scorched earth policy to do it. As with the the class war against ordinary Americans, the questions are will the House discover it’s already at war with the president, and will it choose to fight.

  11. CitizenCrone says:

    Thanks for the acknowledgement of Keith and the introduction to MB Perdue. You detoured my day with some very rewarding reads.

    • bmaz says:

      Sigh. It is also a reminder of how long we have been here. The history is good; a lot of newer folks do not know it. And, I think, we have a pretty good and proud history. Thank you for entertaining a bit of it.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Maybe we could have a periodic nostalgia forum: people, topics, great debates.

        People sadly, would largely be those, like Mary, who remain only in memory. The Fukushima Daiichi coverage was stellar, continues to be relevant, and involved a lot of names now less common. EW’s Libby coverage might be another, it’s topic remains timely. It also sets up part of the history of how she became a legal commentator.

        Recent joiners miss the deeper history and experience brought to them by those who run this blog and why they do it.

        • bmaz says:

          Another one is the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo incident. I think we had some pretty good stuff on that too. Someday I suppose we shall look back in reflection on the Mueller Report days. Time marches along.

  12. fpo says:

    What a remarkable, inspirational man was Judge Damon Jerome Keith.

    It is some comfort in troubled times knowing that his spirit lives on in the lives of those who knew him.

  13. r helder says:

    bmaz: thanks for the tribute to a truly great man. i heard him and john feikens speak when i was in high school, shortly after they were appointed the first two commissioners of michigan’s civil rights commission. i remember him having the courage to call out housing discrimination in dearborn (which was then michigan’s fourth largest city and 100% white because of restrictive real estate covenants) before an all-white crowd. it was fitting that both men were raised to the federal bench.

    • bmaz says:

      That is a great story. Thank you. I spent significant time in the greater Detroit area when even a kid, because my paternal grandparents lived there. Farmington Hills (Is that right?) area. Grandfather spent a career at and retired from Ford.

      This has nothing to do with how and why I later learned about and loved Damon Keith from law school, just kind of background. I would love to hear more about that history from you, if you have some more. And this is a good time to lay it out. That is the Keith I never did, nor could have, known. From the time and area. I just learned of him from a much further distance. Would love to hear more of the background you are discussing.

      • r helder says:

        i had no more direct contact, but damon keith’s tenure on michigan’s civil rights commission, 1964 to 1967, made him a public figure and spokesman during some of detroit’s roughest years. race was a major issue in the goldwater-johnson election of 1964, very divisive between black-detroit and the white suburbs. suddenly, black-detroit began to be heard, and damon keith was, i think, the only person of color heading a state-wide office, so newspapers quoted him extensively. he was commissioner when congress passed the voting rights act, when detroit civil-rights activist viola liuzzo was was killed by the k.k.k. returning from the 1965 selma march, and through the long hot summers of 1966 and 1967 which culminated in the detroit riots, unforgettable to those who experienced them. i have been told that damon keith’s public-calming demeanor in response to the riots caused senator hart to recommend him to president johnsons for appointment to the federal bench in 1967, though i am sure there were many other reasons as well.

        by the way, a good friend grew up in farmington hills. it was, i believe, founded by quakers as an outpost of peace, and remained peacefully rural (no one locked their doors) until absorbed by the sprawl of greater detroit in the 1970s, sprawl caused by white flight from detroit following the riots.

        and yes, practically everybody i knew growing up worked for ford, chrysler, or g.m.; not so anymore!

        • bmaz says:

          I remember during the riots, we got picked up at the airport, and my grandfather pointing away, off the road, in the direction of a May store we had gone to in the past, and saying “it is really bad down there now”. And, that was when, it turns out, the riots were full on. I was there, and may have seen more of it from Walter Cronkite than I really did from my own eye. It has been so long….

        • r helder says:

          detroit’s population is about half what it was in 1967, with most having moved to the suburbs or outstate, and the decline started with the riots. my summer job ended because of the riots, forcing me to get one in western michigan, and i never returned to the detroit area except to visit. my grade school and high school no longer exist, eliminated when the school aged population plummeted. a surprising number of friends and colleagues here in grand rapids were born and raised in the detroit area, a forced migration to the state’s second largest city. so, the effects of the riots are still felt in michigan.

        • P J Evans says:

          in the early 2000s, there was a [white] guy in my workgroup from Detroit, who was still angry that he didn’t get a lifetime job at an automaker right out of school. (He also had problems working with women, not good at a company that was more than 30% female.)

        • Rayne says:

          Contrary to other opinions, Detroit’s greatest population crash occurred 2000-2009 due to the Big Three automakers and their suppliers moving manufacturing offshore. That’s why Mr. Entitled didn’t have a job on the line waiting for him.

          The white flight described came in lesser waves after WWII. The racist attitudes about Detroit remained, though, just as we still hear tales about how bad the (race) riots were decades later. Funny how nobody ever talks about Columbus OH like that though they had riots, too.

        • P J Evans says:

          The other person I worked with who was from Detroit was a black woman – she went back to Detroit in the 90s, and AFAIK is still there – I think managing one of the music clubs.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          For a while that summer, Jeeps with .30 calibers operated like destroyer escorts for a convoy. Vietnam and the draft were ramping up big time. The civil rights movement was still being stymied. And that was before Martin and Bobby were gunned down the following Spring.

  14. I Never Lie and am Always Right says:

    Thanks very much for this post. It evokes both admiration and sadness, knowing the this giant of man, a true hero, made this world a much better place while also knowing that there are far too few men and women like him working in the public arena today.

  15. Ckymonstaz says:

    I’m both saddened to hear about this loss and looking forward to reading and learning about Mr. Keith and his life. Another gift from the great folks here at EW

    In an earlier comment Peter mentioned that Jimmy Carter had planned to nominate judge Keith to the supreme Court if reelected but unfortunately it didn’t come to pass. I can’t begin to express my dismay with the actions of the GOP in stealing the last 2 seats but I bring it up because I’ve seen a few articles about the potential for expanding the supreme Court to offset the conservative bias created and wonder if any of the many folks with a greater knowledge of our legal system on here would take some time to weigh in on the pros and cons of doing so?

    I surely fear the damage that could be done if the GOP is able to fill any more seats but with the already overtly conservative slant of the present court in place for what seems to be the foreseeable future and the dangers of global warming fast approaching I fear we stand no chance of reversing the effects or surviving them if we don’t find a way to rebalance the SC soon

  16. Jay Logsdon says:

    On the basis of this post, I bought copy of the book, used, as I am a public defender. Imagine my joy at finding I have a copy signed by the judge. I had just argued his last ruling ought to put an end to letting cops let their dogs onto and into our cars. A great judge and an inspiration.

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