Legendary Jurist and Favorite Son of Detroit Passes at Age 96
4/30/19 – – “Great” is an adjective that should be used sparingly when describing a man or a woman. But it is the first and most fitting word that comes to mind when I think of Judge Damon J. Keith, who passed away Sunday morning in his beloved hometown of Detroit at age 96.
Announcing his passing, The Detroit Free Press described him as, “a grandson of slaves who rose from humble beginnings in Detroit to become an internationally revered champion for justice.” The New York Times focused on the landmark decisions he rendered during his 40+ years as a federal judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, highlighting his battles with the Nixon administration and the brakes he put on government overreach after the attacks of 9/11. It was in the opinion he wrote in response to secret post-9/11 immigrant deportation hearings that Judge Keith warned: “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
Living in Detroit for more than 20 years, I had the honor and pleasure to know and work closely with Judge Keith, thanks to the Judge’s friendship with my boss, entrepreneur Alfred Taubman. Mr. Taubman and I would spend magical time in the Judge’s chambers on the second floor of the Federal Building on Lafayette Street in downtown Detroit. The walls were adorned with photos of Judge Keith interacting with extraordinary people like Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Presidents, sports stars, Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, who he supported and was very close to in the last decades of her life.
While we discussed a wide range of issues and initiatives in his chambers, the objectives of our meetings were always the same – help people and make Detroit a better place. The last session I remember was about a literacy program the Judge was spearheading to address the tragic fact that almost 50 percent of adults living in Detroit were functionally illiterate. We dealt with serious stuff, but the conversations were animated with laughter (both Judge Keith and Mr. Taubman had big, infections laughs).
Like clockwork, I would receive a follow-up call from Judge Keith within hours of our meetings ending. “Christopher . . . it’s Damon. We got a lot done today. Thanks for setting things up with the boss.” I could never get comfortable with calling him Damon. He was Judge Keith to me, even when he would greet me, as he always did, with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
If you’ve never heard of Judge Damon J. Keith, it’s worth reading the Free Press obituary and getting a copy of Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon Keith by Trevor W. Coleman. The story of his life will inspire you and maybe even make you more optimistic about the chances of our nation achieving the goals of racial harmony and equal justice under the law. I’m confident you’ll agree with me that the adjective “great” belongs in front of his name.
Rest in peace, Judge Keith.