Welcome Trevor W. Coleman (TrevorWColeman.com) (Twitter) and Peter J. Hammer (Wayne State Univ.) (Director, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights), and Host bmaz (Emptywheel.net) (Twitter), and Kevin Jon Heller (Melbourne Law School) (Twitter)

Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith

Back in February, I learned via an emailed Detroit News article from Marcy Wheeler that Judge Damon Keith would be the subject of a very promising new book coming out. Before I had even read the article, I fired it off in an email to Beverly Wright, the wonderful curator extraordinaire of Book Salon here, begging her to get the book for us. Little did I know the book was not even scheduled for release until now. But it is here! And what a joy it is; we are in for a real treat today.

Damon Keith is a legend. The kind of judge other judges speak about with hushed reverence and admiration, and for good reason. I first learned of Judge Keith in law school in the early ’80s when studying what is commonly known as “The Keith Case“. It was, and is, one of the most important Fourth amendment cases in history, and undergirds all significant Fourth Amendment law on domestic targeting and electronic surveillance of persons within the United States.

Nobody knows the real name of the case, which is United States v. United States District Court, and only the wonky few among us ever knew the actual criminal defendants’ names. Everybody knows “The Keith Case” by the name of the brilliant and gutsy young judge who tamed the US government in the early 1970s. That man is Damon Keith, and he is STILL an active judge on the Sixth Circuit, albeit on senior status.

I could write thousands of words on the fabric and importance of the Keith Case alone here, yes, it is really is that fascinating and seminal. But that would do a disservice to remarkable history of the man, and the fine book on him authored by our guests today, Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., himself a longtime legendary figure in American social justice, contributed a back cover blurb for Crusader For Justice that really sums up Damon Keith, the man, perfectly:

No one will ever forget Judge Keith’s bold declaration in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft: “Democracies die behind closed doors”. Nor will they forget his contributions to achieving social justice and racial justice through his decisions involving discrimination, national security, and civil liberties. Judge Keith came from humble roots in Detroit. Having suffered racial injustice first hand, he had the bravery to take the phrase “equal justice under law” literally. Life experience matters, which is why diversity on the bench cannot be forsaken. Crusader For Justice, above all else, is the story of judicial courage – the story of a man unafraid to do what he knew was right.

Gates nails the essence of Damon Keith, but he also describes the brilliance of Crusader For Justice as a biography. There is so much more to Damon Keith, the man and his history, than his judicial works. Yet the man and his history are inseparable from his jurisprudence spanning six different decades. Hammer and Coleman masterfully weave the threads of Damon Keith’s life into the tapestry of his work. Quite frankly, I am at a loss for words to describe how fantastic this book truly is.

Fittingly, Damon Jerome Keith was born on the Fourth of July, in 1922. But Crusader For Justice opens with Keith, a graduate of Howard University Law School, working as a janitor while studying for the bar exam. The humble willingness to work to achieve is a mirror for the subsequent journey through the childhood, family background, military service in WWII and educational progression of a social justice giant. But the true Damon Keith starts to emerge with his work with the Detroit NAACP, which he helped grow to stability and significance.

From a friendship with a young Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy through the pain of the ashes from the Detroit fires and riots of 1967 summer, Coleman and Hammer portray the growing conscience for justice and equality in Keith that leads to his appointment in late 1967 to the federal bench in the Eastern District of Michigan by Lyndon Johnson.

From there, the real heart of the judicial lion roars. Little more than a year into his tenure on the federal bench, Keith is thrust into the case of Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac, a racially charged critical case on segregation in the northern states, complete with Klan overtones, death threats on the young judge and public protest. Keith pressed through to make tough findings that “intentionally utilized the power at their disposal to locate new schools and arrange boundaries in such a way as to perpetuate the pattern of segregation within the City and thereby, deliberately….prevented integration” and penned a remedy for the situation. It was a superbly crafted opinion, gutsy and, as Keith has so often been, right.

Hammer and Coleman take the reader through a series of some of the most important lower court federal cases of the last six decades, shepherded by dogged fundamental fairness and brilliant pen of Damon Keith. From yet another racial litigation, Garrett v. City of Hamtramck, to the surveillance and Executive Branch power struggle in “The Keith Case” to First Amendment powerhouse decision in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, where Judge Keith insured courts and justice are open to the public.

One of the final chapters in Coleman and Hammer’s book is entitled “Swimming Upstream:Ideological and Political Shifts In the Courts”. It is an apt chapter for the times we live in today:

In leaving the federal district court for the court of appeals, Keith had gone form being a solitary judge trying to insure justice for the disenfranchised to forming alliances on panels and writing dissenting opinions in an increasingly hostile Sixth Circuit. He felt, on some levels, like Sisyphus with the rock, rolling it uphill only to see it come rolling down in majority opinions that often appeared more politically than judicially motivated.

Politics has always had a role in judicial appointments… But the nature of these politics had shifted dramatically over the past three decades. During his presidential campaign in 1980, Ronald Reagan railed against “liberal activist judges”. If elected, he vowed one of his highest priorities would be to reshape the courts by appointing only strict constructionists who allegedly would interpret the law exactly as written, not make it.

And so Reagan did, as have George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush after him. The conservative power play wreaked havoc in Damon Keith’s beloved Sixth Circuit. As it has in many circuits. This is a subject I have written about continuously (as partial example, see for instance here and here). And Judge Keith is a perfect example of the problem: The conservatives have been dogged about putting a litany of ideological judges in the federal courts, and have moved the courts away from social justice, and the liberal Democrats have not.

The old liberal lions from Damon Keith in the Sixth Circuit, to Canby, Pregerson and Reinhardt in the Ninth Circuit are nearing the ends of their remarkable runs. But they are being replaced with either conservatives, or milquetoast centrist Democratic appointments. Even with Democratic appointments, the ideological balance is arguably moving right. We are running out of Damon Keiths, and the replacements are not being groomed. Crusader For Justice is the tale of the power of a man of character to shape a nation. We need more men like that.

So come join us for a chat with Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer about the remarkable man, the Crusader For Justice, Judge Damon J. Keith.

Trevor W. Coleman is a national award-winning journalist, who has been an editorial writer, and columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He was chief speechwriter for former Michigan governor Jennifer M. Granholm and director of communications for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University and father of two college students, Sydnie and Trevor II. (Wayne State University Press)

Peter J. Hammer is a professor of law and director of the Damon J.Keith Center for Civil rights at Wayne State University. He received his undergraduate training at Gonzaga University and completed a joint J.D./Ph.D. program in law and economics at the University of Michigan.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]