A Respected legal mind and civil rights Icon: The Hon. Judge Damon J. Keith dies at age 96

The Honorable Judge Damon J. Keith, Senior United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and a former United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has died.

The family released the following statement: “This morning at approximately 6:40am, Senior United States Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, one of America’s most towering legal figures, passed away at home in Detroit, surrounded by his family. He was 96 years old. Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20th and 21st centuries. The grandson of slaves, his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life. His decisions ranged from prohibiting the Nixon Administration from warrantless wiretapping in national security cases, to the integration of the Detroit Police Department and the Pontiac Public Schools. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the US District Court in 1967, where he later served as the Court’s first African American Chief Judge. In 1977 he was elevated to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the nation’s second-highest Court, by President Jimmy Carter. He was a family man possessed of uncommon humility, a leading patron of the arts, a mentor who opened doors to scores of aspiring lawyers and judges, and a proud Son of Detroit. Arrangements will be announced shortly.”

Born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, he has served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977. Prior to joining the Court of Appeals, Judge Keith served on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, at the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and as a member of the U.S. Army.

For more than 50 years, Judge Keith persuasively and movingly defended the Constitution, helping communities enforce their civil rights.  He was a civil rights icon. His decisions desegregated public schools, broken color lines at corporations and required municipalities to repair the damage caused by systemic racism.

Judge Keith earned the admiration of judges, presidents and everyday citizens alike.  Many of whom have publicly shared their respect and admiration.

“Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights. His decisions from the bench prevented the federal government from infringing on individual liberties and helped to battle systemic racism in corporations, municipalities and schools. I first came to Michigan to clerk for Judge Keith, who became my mentor, said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State. “I was proud to serve as dean at the law school that houses the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. His quote, ‘Democracies die behind closed doors,’ is emblazoned above the center’s entrance at Wayne State University Law School and should serve as a reminder to all of us as we aspire to the legacy he has left our nation,” she continued.

Wayne County Executive had this to say about Judge Keith’s legacy:

“Democracy stands on the shoulders of leaders like Judge Damon Keith. Few have played such an important role in protecting civil liberties and forcing our country to live up to its foundational ideals of equality and justicefor all. As we mourn, we also celebrate the life of an icon that left this world far better than he found it. He did so much for so many, it’s hard to adequately put into words.

“On a personal level, Judge Damon Keith was more than a mentor, he was a motivator who challenged us to be the best version of ourselves. He was always there when called u

pon to help prepare the next generation of civil rights leaders and public servants. We looked to him for guidance and wisdom and always walked away inspired to reach higher. When I was first elected to public office, Judge Keith swore me in, which I consider the honor of a lifetime.”

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Keith family as they mourn and celebrate a life well lived.


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