Minnis Minute: In the presence of greatness

By John Minnis

Legal News

I have had the opportunity to write about two great men in as many weeks: Ernie Harwell and Judge Damon J. Keith. Like the characters in SNL’s “Wayne’s World,” I feel so unworthy.

Harwell, of course, was the universally liked and admired “Voice of the Detroit Tigers,” who died May 4.

Keith is senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in Detroit. Ground was broken Monday, May 17, for a building to bear his name adjacent to the Wayne State University Law School.

At the ceremony, with more than 600 of his friends, supporters and fellow members of the judiciary present, Keith said he hoped the The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights would be guided by the four words chiseled over the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law.

Keith said those words have guided him throughout his judicial career. That is saying something.

Keith earned his law degree from Howard University in 1949 after earning a B.A. at West Virginia State College. He also went on to earn an LL.M. at Wayne Law in 1956. One of Detroit’s “native sons,” Keith is a Northwestern High School graduate, Class of 1939, and the first in his family to go to college.

He married Rachel Boone, a medical doctor, in 1953. They had three daughters. Keith has been a widower for 3 1/2 years.

At the time of taking the bar exam, he swept floors at The Detroit News.

President Johnson nominated Keith to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1967. Ten years later, he would leave as chief judge when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

He changed jobs, but not buildings. In fact, Keith was the impetus behind the Presidents Wall, a new display at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse unveiled on Law Day. Keith had observed to Chief Judge Gerald Rosen that there were no pictures of the president in the courthouse. To remedy the situation and not show partiality, it was decided, after Judge Rosen’s son had suggested it, to have a historical display of all the presidents.

Judge Keith was asked at the time why Law Day was important. He responded, as he always does, because of the four words on the U.S. Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law.

At the Wayne Law groundbreaking, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited Keith’s unwavering “fidelity to the U.S. Constitution.” Keith has stood up for the civil rights of all people, including suspected terrorists.

During the aftermath of 9/11, Judge Keith stood up to President George W. Bush, ruling In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft that it was unlawful for the Bush administration to conduct deportation hearings in secret whenever the government asserted that the people involved might be linked to terrorism. Writing for a unanimous U.S. Court of Appeals panel, Keith declared, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” For that, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called Keith an “American hero.”

Three decades earlier, Judge Keith stood up to President Nixon, declaring warrantless wiretaps a violation of the Fourth Amendment. To this day, the ruling is known as the “Keith Decision.”

Keith exposed systematic racial discrimination at Detroit Edison. He found school segregation in Pontiac and ordered citywide busing.

By standing up to presidents, huge corporations and big-city schools, Keith showed extraordinary courage.

As a community leader, Keith roused business leaders to provide safe housing for civil rights icon Rosa Parks after her home was broken into and she was assaulted. He again rallied these same business leaders to save the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History from bankruptcy.

But despite all these great accomplishments — in themselves enough to warrant greatness — Judge Keith, like Ernie Harwell, was esteemed not just for his deeds but also for the intrinsic man that he is. Give us a handful of Harwells and Keiths, and Detroit — and the world — would be a far better place.