Legendary judge Damon J. Keith helped to plant seeds of change

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by Takura Nyamfukudza

Editor’s note: Judge Damon J. Keith, long-time judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, passed away at the end of April at the age of 86.)

In spring of 2013, while still a student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, I joined my peers of the Davis-Dunnings Bar Association (DDBA) for “The Detroit Experience: A Legal Perspective.”

The trip included tours of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Wayne State University Judge Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith – a champion for justice and a hero of the American legal system – also hosted us in his chambers, presented us with a lecture, and invited us to join him for dinner.

As one of the longest serving federal jurists, Judge Keith had long displayed a  commitment to human rights and equal protection under the law, leading him to make some of the most influential legal decisions in United States history.

 His earliest years as a federal judge were during a tumultuous period of racial bigotry in the U.S., yet he was courageous in his legal rulings that trounced systemic discrimination, a practice that continued throughout his career. This included a ruling to integrate Pontiac public schools – which was the first of its kind in the North. In housing, he ordered the city of Hamtramck to provide 500 African Americans – displaced by gentrification, under the guise of urban renewal projects – with new, affordable housing.

He possessed a keen awareness of the power of the United States Constitution that proved to be instrumental in fighting against governmental abuses of power. Most notably, his usage of the Fourth Amendment to end President Richard Nixon’s warrantless wiretapping on anyone deemed to be a national security threat, in 1971; and, his ruling in 2002, that President Bush’s administration had violated the First Amendment with its secret deportation hearings.

 Judge Keith was a remarkable man and beacon of hope and freedom, whose devotion to his work serves as a brilliant example of integrity and character. The advice and guidance he offered us as aspiring legal professionals, were a small percentage of the seeds of positive change that he spread across communities, cities, America, and the world.

Judge Keith once said, “I’m walking on floors I did not scrub, and going through doors that I did not open. But I plan to keep scrubbing floors and opening doors so others can walk on the floor and go through these doors. That’s what I hope I can leave.” And he did.

 On behalf of the DDBA, we are grateful of the time he spent with us and we will continue to honor him and his legacy, in our work.

The author is a partner with the East Lansing firm of Chartier & Nyamfukudza, P.L.C.
 
 

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