Washington, D.C. – Judge Damon Keith, the longest serving African-American federal judge in U.S. history, passed away at his home in Detroit, Michigan on April 28, 2019. A graduate of West Virginia State University, Judge Keith earned his law degree from Howard University and went on to obtain a Masters in Law from Wayne State University in Detroit. Appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, Keith was promoted to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
As the civil rights community reflects on his legacy, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued the following statement:
“Judge Damon Keith stands as a jurist who, at every stage of his legal career, sought to safeguard principles that lie at the heart of democracy while ensuring equal justice under law for all. Judge Keith lived a life of service from his early years in the United States Army, to his time as a young attorney and later as one of the great judicial minds in our nation. As we mark the passing of this legal giant, we recognize his legacy on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement and his work to preserve the freedoms for all in our country in the name of racial justice.
“Throughout his personal and professional life Judge Keith was faced with discrimination at times when our country was marred with segregationist policies and Jim Crow laws. Nevertheless, Keith persevered through these roadblocks and turned his experiences into the moral ground that he stood on throughout his career.
Clarke continued, “Judge Keith’s years as a federal judge, which spanned more than 5 decades and 10 presidents, was rooted in the high ethical standards that made him a man of character and sound judgement. Many of his decisions establish core precedents that will continue to shape the fight for racial justice and equality for years to come.”
Judge Damon Keith’s seminal civil rights rulings includes, In Stamps v. Detroit, Edison, Judge Keith found that the utility company had practiced racial discrimination, ordered it to pay fines and institute an affirmative action program. In an effort to protect equal protection under the law, Judge Keith ruled that President George W. Bush could not hold deportation hearings for terrorism suspects behind doors in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft. Judge Keith, a fierce advocate for democracy and the rule of law later uttered a now famous phrase “democracy dies behind closed doors”.
Reynolds Graves, Lawyers’ Committee, RGraves@LawyersCommittee.org, 202-662-8375