The 'high ground' - A grand celebration marks his '50-year fight for justice'


– Photos by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Befitting a man of his legal stature, a gala celebration in honor of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith attracted a sell-out crowd to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on October 28.

The event featured scores of VIPs, including the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Edsel B. Ford II, Mitch Albom, Congressman John Conyers, and Congresswoman Debbie Dingell among others. All were on hand to pay tribute to the 95-year-old jurist, celebrating his "50-year fight for justice" as a member of the federal bench.

Said Jackson of Keith: "He is the greatest Supreme Court justice we never had," saluting the Detroit native's lifetime commitment to taking the "moral high ground" in pursuit of "equal justice under law."

Keith's legion of law clerks-which includes his U.S. Court of Appeals colleague Judge Eric L. Clay, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier, and former Wayne State Law Dean Jocelyn Benson helped spearhead plans for the celebration, due in large part to the efforts of Praveen Madhiraju, vice president and deputy general counsel for the Center for American Progress.

In a collective statement, the law clerks recognized that, "Throughout his 95 years, Damon J. Keith has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice," a quest that continues to come under political and judicial attack, they noted.

"But as we celebrate Judge Keith's 50 years on the federal bench, it is hard to ignore the enormous problems our nation faces. As Judge Keith has written, 'With every gain in equality, there is often an equally robust and reactive retrenchment . . . For every action, there is a reaction.'"

In particular, and most recently, the clerks praised Keith for his "scathing" dissent in a 2016 Ohio voting rights case, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless v. Husted, which upheld voter denial efforts.

"In his characteristic style of placing the controversy in historical context, Judge Keith gave a face to voter suppression and historically contextualized it in an 11-page pictorial honoring slain civil rights activists, including Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and the four little girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama," the clerks wrote. "By placing flesh on the legal arguments, Judge Keith reminded us that many died for the right to vote, and many others slaughtered, butchered, maimed, and killed to monopolize it."

For those who gathered October 28 to celebrate Keith and his legal legacy, the statement was reflected in succinct terms by event co-chair Mitch Albom, who praised the evening's honoree richly.

"Judge Keith," said Albom, "is the ultimate example of 'to do good is to do great.'"