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Black federal judge celebrates 50 years on bench

JEFF KAROUB | 11/13/2017, 6:31 p.m.
Judge Damon J. Keith thinks back on his 50 years on the federal bench and remembers many tumultuous and significant ...
Congressman John Conyers turns in his personal papers to Judge Damon J. Keith's Collection of African American Legal History, July 18, 2014 during a dedication ceremony in Detroit. The papers, which include his work on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the establishment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday, will be held by the Damon J. Keith Collection of African American Legal History. The Keith Collection is a repository detailing the contributions and achievements of Black lawyers, judges and political figures. Mandi Wright of Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) – Judge Damon J. Keith thinks back on his 50 years on the federal bench and remembers many tumultuous and significant times, including being sued by President Richard Nixon after ruling that wiretapping couldn’t be done without a court order.

The 95-year-old from Detroit, the only African American among six current federal judges who have served 50 or more years according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, still hears cases about four times a year at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. His approach – in or out of the spotlight, on or off the bench – is the same: Fight for the Constitution, not with each other.

“Just treat everyone with dignity,” said Keith, who was honored at a gala Saturday in Detroit for reaching the half-century mark.

The phrase “Equal justice under law,” which is etched onto the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, drives Keith and reminds him of lessons Thurgood Marshall taught him as one of his professors at Howard University. Marshall became the first Black Supreme Court justice in October 1967 – the same month Keith, a prominent lawyer in his own right by then, was appointed to the federal bench.

He recalled Marshall saying, “The White men wrote those four words. When you leave Howard, I want you to go out and practice law and see what you can do to enforce those four words.”

“And that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Keith said recently at Detroit’s historic federal court building, where he’s had an office since President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the federal district court 50 years ago.

In 1970, Keith ordered a bus policy and new boundaries in the Pontiac, Michigan, school district to break up racial segregation.

A year later, he made another groundbreaking decision, finding that Hamtramck, Michigan, illegally destroyed Black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal with the federal government’s help. The remedy was 200 housing units for Blacks. The court case is still alive decades later due to disputes over property taxes and the slow pace of construction.

The wiretapping ruling against Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell also came in 1971. Keith said they couldn’t engage in the warrantless wiretapping of three people suspected of conspiring to destroy government property. The decision was affirmed by the appellate court, and the Nixon administration appealed and sued Keith personally.

“That’s why I had to get a lawyer to represent me before the Supreme Court. And they affirmed me unanimously,” Keith said.

Keith remembered the wiretapping case going smoothly at first. He invited the attorneys for the U.S. government and the defendants, who were part of a group of White supporters of civil rights seen as radical by some and called the White Panthers, to his office. The defendants’ lawyers had been held in contempt of court by a Chicago judge, and Keith assured them things would be different with him.

“I served them coffee and doughnuts, we sat down, and I said, ‘Now, in this court we’re going to treat you men with dignity. When you get up to speak, the court will hear you and we’ll have a rebuttal by the other side, I’ll make a ruling and we’ll move on,”’ Keith recalled.