Civil-Rights Icon Approaches 47 Years on the Federal Bench

  Photo is by Archie J. Brown. (Keith is sitting, and Machen is on the right.) 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 at Venable LLP 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. U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith, seated, with Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, May 2014  
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 29, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.

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