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Judge Damon J. Keith, civil rights and judicial icon, dies at 96

Free Press staff, wire reports | 5/3/2019, 6 a.m.
U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith, who decided many of the nation’s most important school desegregation, employment discrimination and ...
Judge Damon J. Keith and Ray Boone

DETROIT

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith, who decided many of the nation’s most important school desegregation, employment discrimination and government surveillance cases during his more than 50 years on the federal bench, died Sunday, April 28, 2019, at his home in Detroit surrounded by family.

He was 96 and, as a senior judge, still heard cases about four times a year at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The grandson of slaves, Judge Keith, who has long ties to the Richmond area, rose from humble beginnings to become a prominent attorney in Detroit and later a civil rights icon with his rulings in high-profile cases following his appointment to the U.S. District Court in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was elevated to the federal appeals court in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

A native of Detroit, Judge Keith graduated from West Virginia State University and, after serving in the Army during World War II, entered Howard University School of Law, where he finished in 1949. He married his wife, Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, an internal medicine specialist who was born in Liberia to Baptist missionaries, at First African Baptist Church in Richmond’s Jackson Ward in 1953. The ceremony was followed by a reception at the family farm of Dr. Keith’s aunt and uncle, the Tharps, in Mechanicsville.

Judge Keith captured the nation’s attention in 1971 when he ruled that President Richard Nixon and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell violated the constitutional rights of three radical White Panther Party members whose phones were tapped without a court order. Judge Keith said the government couldn’t engage in the warrantless wiretapping despite the three being suspected of conspiring to destroy government property.

The decision was affirmed by the appellate court, but the Nixon administration appealed and sued Judge Keith personally. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Judge Keith prevailed in what became known as “the Keith case.”

Judge Keith revisited the civil liberties theme roughly 30 years later in an opinion that said President George W. Bush couldn’t conduct secret deportation hearings of terrorism suspects. Judge Keith’s opinion contained the line, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” A similar phrase — “Democracy dies in darkness” — is now the slogan of The Washington Post, which has credited Judge Keith.

“During his more than 50 years on the federal bench, he handed down rulings that have safeguarded some of our most important and cherished civil liberties, stopping illegal government wiretaps and secret deportation hearings, as well as ending racial segregation in Pontiac (Michigan) schools,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.

Judge Keith told the AP in an October 2017 interview that the phrase, “Equal justice under law,” which is etched onto the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, inspired him and always summoned the lessons Thurgood Marshall taught him as one of his professors at Howard University School of Law. Justice Marshall became the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1967 — the same month Judge Keith received his federal appointment.