Get Connected
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • Sign In
  • Classifieds
  • Sections
Print

New book chronicles life of federal judge, W.Va. State grad

Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith

By Peter J. Hammer and Trevor W. Coleman

Wayne State University Press, 300 xx pages. Hardcover, $29.95.

 

By Paul J. Nyden

Staff writer

Back in the mid-1980s, Damon Keith got coffee and fruit at the breakfast buffet in the Cincinnati hotel where he was staying. He happened to sit down at a table near two white men dressed in business suits. The men glared at him.

"Do you mind?" one of them asked. "Can't you see we're busy?"

"Excuse me. I'm sorry," Keith said, then headed to sit at another table. An hour later, he walked into a nearby federal courtroom.

"'Hear ye, hear ye!' the clerk's voice bellowed. 'The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is in session, the Honorable Damon J. Keith presiding.'"

After sitting down behind the bench, Keith asked the clerk to call the first case.

The two men from the hotel restaurant walked in. They turned out to be lawyers representing the appellant. When they approached the bench and saw Judge Keith, their faces dropped.

"You could tell a mile away," Keith remembers. "They were dumbstruck."

This is one of many fascinating memories from Damon Keith who, at 91, is still a senior judge on the Sixth Circuit, and living in Detroit.

In "Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith," authors Peter J. Hammer and Trevor W. Coleman tell engaging stories about Keith's long life and the amazing legal rulings over decades.

The grandson of slaves and son of a Ford auto factory worker in Detroit, Keith's decisions as a judge helped improve the lives of blacks, other minorities, poor people, women and Americans of all types.

Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, and grew up there. He graduated from West Virginia State College in Institute in 1943, received his law degree at Howard University in 1949 and a master's in law degree from Wayne State University in 1956.

After law school, he ended up cutting trees and mopping floors at The Detroit News for a while. One day, an older white reporter at the Detroit paper asked him why he was studying a law dictionary in the paper's hallway.

"I'm going to be a lawyer," Keith replied. "A black lawyer?" the reporter asked. "You better keep mopping."

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Keith to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, where he later became chief judge. Between 1977 and 1995, Keith served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where he is still a senior judge.

When Keith first arrived in Institute in 1939, he didn't even have a suitcase and was forced to disembark from the rear doors of a segregated train. When he graduated from West Virginia State in 1943, it was still an all-black college.

Keith learned about State because his mother's cousin Ethel had married Dr. John Warren Davis, who became president of the school back in 1919.

This August, West Virginia State University plans to open a new dormitory complex in the center of its campus — the Judge Damon J. Keith Scholars Hall. It is the first new dormitory built on campus since 1969.

Keith served in the Army in Europe during World War II and the G.I. Bill helped him go to law school.

Many things turned out well for him. In 1953, he married Rachel Boone, who had a medical degree from the Boston University School of Medicine. While he was a student at Howard, Keith also met Thurgood Marshall, a chief counsel for the NAACP who became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967.

After he became a U.S. District Court judge, Keith made several decisions helping minorities, including rulings that:

 

  • Required public schools in Pontiac, Mich. to integrate more broadly.
  •  

     

  • Instructed the city of Hamtramck to stop unfairly displacing black residents when using "eminent domain" to take over land to construct a new auto assembly plant or expand interstate highways.
  •  

     

  • Ordered the Detroit Edison electric power company to reverse its discriminatory hiring practices.
  •  

    One of Keith's most controversial rulings came in 1971, when he ordered the Nixon administration to disclose whether it was wiretapping telephones of activists in a Detroit-based group opposing the Vietnam War.

    The Fourth Amendment, Keith ruled, prohibits the federal government from conducting electronic surveillance without a court order or federal warrant.

    Nixon appealed Keith's ruling, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his decision in an 8-0 vote.

    Keith experienced increasing frustration as a federal judge after judicial appointments under Ronald Reagan began turning federal courts more conservative across the country.

    Perhaps the new book's most unusual chapter details Keith's long friendship with Clarence Thomas, the very conservative black Supreme Court Justice.

    Thomas has cast deciding votes in 5-4 Supreme Court decisions against voting rights, affirmative action plans and school desegregation.

    In the wake of 9/11, Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft was argued before the Sixth Circuit on Aug. 6, 2002. The case focused on the right of public access to deportation hearings. Several other newspapers and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., also supported the lawsuit against secrecy.

    The Detroit Free Press wanted federal hearings seeking to deport Rabih Haddad, a Lebanese immigrant, to be open to the public. Attorney General John Ashcroft, appointed by George W. Bush, sought to overturn a lower court ruling upholding that public right.

    Keith ruled the First Amendment guarantees the American public the right of access to deportation hearings.

    That opinion stated, "An informed public is the most potent of all restraints upon misgovernment. ...

    "Today the Executive Branch seeks to take this safeguard away from the public by placing its actions beyond public scrutiny," Keith wrote. "Democracies die behind closed doors."

    His opinion was praised around the country and around the world.

    A New York Times column called Keith "an American hero."

    The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., quoted Keith's ruling on the Senate floor when he denounced "Bush's heavy-handed approach to national security," Hammer and Coleman point out.

    It was an historic decision against White House efforts to limit Constitutional rights.

    "Keith endured racial insults, police harassment, military inequity and professional prejudice," concludes "Crusader for Justice."

    "He and his generation of black lawyers took these lessons to heart. They did not hesitate to tell America how wrong it was to live under such injustice."

    Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164304-348-5164.


    Print

    User Comments