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Damon Keith (1922–2019), federal judge promoted equality

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Known for a landmark ruling against Nixon's Justice Department

Damon Keith was a federal judge with a long and prolific career, serving on the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for more than 40 years. Presiding over courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, Keith never retired, serving until his death at 96. His most notable decision was in a 1971 case regarding the Nixon Administration. Nixon's Justice Department was wiretapping people suspected of conspiring to bomb a CIA office, and they were doing it without court orders. Keith ordered them to cease wiretapping without warrants. The Justice Department appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Keith's decision 8-0. Keith was also known for a 1971 order to desegregate schools in Pontiac, Michigan via bussing, as well as for upholding the affirmative action policy in the Detroit Police Department.

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Died: April 28, 2019 (Who else died on April 28?)

Details of death: Died in Detroit at the age of 96.


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Keith's success story: Born to a poor family in Detroit, Keith worked his way through college by waiting tables and cleaning the college president's home and a chapel. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and served in a time of military segregation, working in an all-black unit assigned to kitchen duties. After the war, he attended law school at the historically black Howard University, finding notable mentors in future Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, who would become the U.S.'s first black federal judge. Keith founded one of Detroit's first black law firms, and just three years later, he was appointed a federal judge. He became a mentor to notable people including Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and Rashad Hussain, who served as Deputy Associate Counsel to President Barack Obama.

Notable quote: “By denying the most vulnerable the right to vote, the majority shuts minorities out of our political process. The unfettered right to vote is the bedrock of a free and democratic society. Without it, such a society cannot stand.” —Keith in a 2016 dissent in an Ohio case restricting early and absentee voting

What people said about him: “Judge Damon Keith was a great lawyer, activist — and became an icon. A hero to so many. This nation is indebted to him for the work he did to make America more just. 'Democracy dies in the dark' was written by this great man. That phrase is so relevant today.” —Eric Holder, former Attorney General of the United States

“One of the great ones has passed on. Judge Damon Keith was one of that band of brilliant, courageous African American federal judges appointed in the late 1960s and 1970s whose jurisprudence, eloquence and dignity set a standard of excellence.” —Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

“Above all, Judge Keith taught me and all who knew him about the preeminent importance of living a life in service to others. He lived that principle every day of his 96 years, and we are all better for it.” —Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Full obituary: Detroit Free Press

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