In 1987, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith was in Williamsburg, Va., for a meeting of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution when a white man approached him outside the Williamsburg Inn and asked him to park his car.
“There’s not a day in my life, in some way large or small, I’m not reminded of the fact that I’m a black man,” Keith told a gathering of more than 100 politicians, judges, and attorneys who gathered to honor the 91-year-old jurist at the Venable law firm last week.
During an hour-long conversation with Peter Hammer, a professor at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Keith held forth on the responsibilities of a federal judge and the evolution of race relations in the U.S.
In the audience were Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a former classmate of Keith’s at Northwestern High School in Detroit; Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia; and more than 20 of Keith’s former law clerks.
Keith, who has been a federal judge since 1967, is well-known in the legal profession for two cases in which he ruled that executive actions were unconstitutional. In his 1971 ruling in United States v. Sinclair, Keith prohibited then-Attorney General John Mitchell from engaging in warrantless wiretapping. In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft in 2002, Keith deemed it unlawful for the Justice Department to conduct deportation proceedings for alleged terrorists in secret.
“Democracies die behind closed doors,” Keith famously wrote.
At the event, Keith admonished the attorneys present to adhere to the principle of “equal justice under law,” which is inscribed above the main entrance to the Supreme Court. He also dispensed anecdotes about his judicial forebears — Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall — and teased Machen about the latter’s braggadocio when Machen was a law clerk for Keith.
“I had to take a little bark off him,” Keith said. “He came in with that swagger, and he thought he knew everything about everything. I had to call him in and say, ‘Hey, buddy, you’re walking in high cotton. You got to slow down.’ When Ron left me, his mother sent me a group of proverbs with a note that said, ‘Judge Keith, thank you for making a man out of my son and taking a little starch out of him.’ “
At one point, Hammer asked Keith about his father, who earned $5 a day as a Ford worker. “I would see him coming home “¦ with scars on him from the heat of working in the foundry,” Keith said. “They didn’t have a labor union; they had no sick days, no off days, absolutely nothing. If you didn’t punch in and punch out, you didn’t make a paycheck.”
As recounted in Crusader for Justice, a biography of Keith published last year by Hammer and Trevor W. Coleman, his father died two days after Keith earned his bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College in 1943. “God spared him his life so he could “¦ see me graduated,” Keith said.
The grandson of slaves, Keith was born in Detroit in 1922 and served in an all-black Army unit (commanded by five white officers) during World War II. After receiving a law degree from Howard University, he worked as a janitor at The Detroit News while studying for the Michigan bar exam.
In 1967, President Johnson appointed Keith to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on the recommendation of the late Sen. Philip Hart, D-Mich. Keith was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seated in Cincinnati, in 1977.
Keith, who attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, told the crowd at Venable that he sees the law as an engine of social progress. “It was God’s will that I drew these cases and that I could make a difference,” he said.