Revered judge reflects on 90 years

by Tom Kirvan, Legal News

Judge Damon J. Keith, now in his 45th year on the federal bench, has been asked to give countless speeches during his illustrious legal career. In particular, he has been a sought-after speaker by scores of colleges and prominent universities across the nation.

On Sept. 7, the distinguished U.S. Court of Appeals judge delivered an address at a special convocation at Albion College, entitled “Discovering New Oceans.”
“My message to the students was quite simple: You won’t be able to discover new oceans until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” said Keith, whose speech merited two standing ovations from a packed audience.

In many respects, the message could serve as a metaphor of his life. He acknowledged as much in a wide-ranging interview a little more than a month after he celebrated his 90th birthday.

“I am an ordinary man who has had the good fortune in my life – in my career – to be surrounded by extraordinary people and to experience extraordinary times,” said Keith, who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1977, some 10 years after he was named to the U.S. District Court bench in Detroit. “Yet, I also recognized early on...that there are no givens, that at times you need to take risks, to go against the grain if you’re going to achieve your goals.”

He was seven when his father taught him a timeless lesson.

“My father worked as a laborer at the Ford Motor Co. and had taught us to expect only a few toys; some new, and some used,” Keith said, noting that times were tough for his parents as they raised seven children. “On Christmas of 1928, my gift from Santa was a bright and shining green wagon. I was delighted and thrilled.”
A year later his father was one of the thousands unemployed due to the Great Depression. The wagon had begun to show its age. “It was rusty and one of the wheels had come off,” Keith related. On Christmas Eve, father and son took a walk to a hardware store. On the way, they talked about the true meaning of Christmas while admiring the neighbor’s decorations.

“When we arrived at the store, my father asked the clerk for a wheel, one that would fit my old wagon,” Keith said. That was his sole gift. As they left, his father discussed what Christmas meant to him. It proved to be a profound lesson, one that still resonates today. “He said that we as a family should be thankful to God for the food on our table, the roof over our heads,” Keith stated. “That God had allowed us to be together for another year without a link in our family chain being broken; and that He had blessed us with good health and we as a unit had the love that Christmas was all about.”

Now, some 83 years later, Judge Keith looks upon his faith as a guiding principle throughout his career, which is dotted with a series of high profile cases that help define his legacy.

It was by chance that he was assigned a case in 1971 that involved the prosecution of White Panther members John Sinclair, Larry “Pun” Plamondon, and John Forrest with conspiracy to destroy government property. Plamondon also was charged with bombing an office of the CIA in Ann Arbor. The case originally was assigned to Judge Talbot Smith, but as an Ann Arbor resident Smith elected to step aside, fearing that the Ann Arbor-based radical group would target him. Smith suggested that an outside judge be appointed.

Keith was of a different mindset, convincing Chief Judge Ralph Freeman that the judges had a responsibility to “meet the challenges of such cases head-on” and  they “should not shy away from controversial or difficult cases” in spite of any inherent risks. Freeman agreed and put the case in a blind draw, which Keith “won.”
“I was the ‘chosen one,’” Keith said with a broad smile, noting that the fortuitous turn of events would enable him to leave a lasting imprint on the law.

In response to a pre-trial motion by the defense, Judge Keith ordered the government to disclose all electronic surveillance information that it had obtained during wiretapping of the defendants. The government appealed the order, filing a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the ruling. The appeal was denied in a 2-1 decision by the Sixth Circuit.

“A number of my colleagues kept telling me that my decision would be reversed, that there was no way I was going to get the better of President Nixon and Attorney General (John) Mitchell in a 4th Amendment case that had such important national security implications,” Keith recalled. “I needed to obtain my own lawyer to argue the case as it made its way to the Supreme Court... Bill Gossett (a past president of the American Bar Association) took on the case pro bono, and he later said that it was the most important case he ever argued during his career.”

In what would become known as the “Keith Case,” the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ rulings in a unanimous 8-0 vote. Justice Lewis Powell wrote the majority opinion, contending that, “We cannot accept the Government’s argument that internal security matters are too subtle and complex for judicial evaluation,” praising Keith for staunchly defending individual civil liberties by prohibiting the federal government from conducting electronic surveillance without a court order.
It would be just one of many high profile cases over which Judge Keith presided. The Pontiac school desegregation battle became a lightning rod in George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign.

“In 1970, in response to a suit filed a year earlier by the NAACP that charged that Pontiac Schools were deliberately segregated, I ordered the school district to begin a busing plan that would help achieve integration,” Keith recalled. “There was an incredible amount of opposition.” Ten Pontiac school buses were destroyed by five Ku Klux Klan members, later found guilty. Says Keith, “It certainly was unsettling to be threatened, but I couldn’t let it deter me.”

Keith would take a similar stand in a 1971 Hamtramck housing discrimination case where he ruled that the city practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build affordable new housing for displaced residents. “It was a clear case of discrimination against blacks living in Hamtramck at the time,” Keith said, noting that it was tied to the construction of I-75. “It was a systematic removal without any plans to ever relocate them...”
A graduate of Howard Law School (where he was Chief Justice of the Court of Peers) and Wayne State University Law School (LLM), Keith has presided over a host of other noteworthy cases.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Judge Keith was called upon to write the majority opinion in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, a case that curbed the Bush administration’s ability to close deportation hearings to the public for national security concerns. In the well-crafted opinion, Keith wrote, “Democracies die behind closed doors,” words that have come to define his legal career and are etched on the walls of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State Law School.

“The day that the Keith Center opened was such a highlight for me and my family,” Keith said. “It is a reflection of what can be accomplished when people pull together in the face of challenges.”

A national TV audience watched as Keith and granddaughter Camara were interviewed on The Larry King Live show during Jan. 2009 inauguration festivities, captured in a YouTube video.

“My granddaughter accompanied me to President Obama’s inauguration...,” Keith recalled. “I told [interviewers] that I was privileged to be part of three momentous occasions. In 1990, I was asked... to introduce Nelson Mandela ... at Tiger Stadium. I also was in attendance for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington ... and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. And, as I was telling them about being present for the President’s inauguration, I was overcome with emotion. I could barely get the words out about what it meant to me and countless others who have been involved in the civil rights struggle.”