Judge Damon J. Keith, Noted Justice and Civil Rights Icon, Dies At 96

Judge Damon J. Keith died Sunday morning at his home in Detroit. He was 96. The Detroit native was one of the nation’s longest-serving federal judges and an iconic champion of civil rights; he never retired, dying in office

In United States v. Sinclair (1971), Keith famously ruled that Nixon’s Attorney General John N. Mitchell had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. Keith’s decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.[2]The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. U.S. District Court (1972) (also known as “the Keith case”) contributed in 1978 to president Jimmy Carter signing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That decision is commemorated as a “Michigan Legal Milestone” called “the Uninvited Ear” and erected by the State Bar of Michigan.[8]

In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft (2002), Keith, writing for a unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, found that absolute closure of deportation hearings in “special interest” cases was unconstitutional. Under the authorization of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy told all immigration judges to close to the public and media all hearings associated with immigration that were thought to be related to September 11 investigation.[9] These cases were advised to be handled in seclusion, “closed off from the public”, and were held in special interest of national security. Officials terminated public records of the case and removed them from the court’s docket. This rule of closed deportation hearings became known as the “Creppy directive”.[10] Members of the press and public filed two of the cases challenging the Government’s closure of removal proceedings. The plaintiffs in those cases are (1) the Detroit Free Press, Inc. and Herald Co., Inc. (d/b/a the Ann Arbor News) (the “free press plaintiffs”) and (2) the Detroit News, Inc., Congressman John Conyers, Jr., and Metro Times, Inc. (the “Detroit News plaintiffs”); the two are collectively the “newspaper plaintiffs”. 

“Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Eric L. Clay, Judge, US Court of Appeals For the Sixth Circuit. “The grandson of slaves, his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life.”

Keith was born and grew up in Detroit,  where he graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939. He then moved on to West Virginia State College where he earned a bachelor’s degree before serving in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946. He then attended Howard University School of Law, earning a Bachelor of Laws in 1949, and Wayne State University Law School where he received a Master of Laws in 1956. He was in the private practice of law in Detroit from 1950 to 1967. He was an attorney in the Office of the Friend of the Court in Detroit from 1951 to 1955.[1] In 1964 Keith was elected co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission with John Feikens and was a key player in the tumultuous times following the Detroit race riots.

He is survived by three daughters.

Arrangements are pending.



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