A 'Supreme' evening


Photo by Tom Kirvan

Judge Keith earns a royal salute at gala event in Washington, D.C.

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For a man whose humble beginnings serve in stark contrast to an illustrious legal career that has spawned a book and movie, Damon J. Keith readily acknowledges that he was in “awe of the moment” that swept over him July 20 at the United States Supreme Court, the magnificent marble-laden building that has come to symbolize “Equal Justice Under Law.”

It was there, just a few rooms removed from where over the years justices have heard some of the country’s most compelling cases, Judge Keith was honored as “The Justice Fighter” in a celebration of his half-century on the federal bench, a milestone that coincided with his 95th birthday on July 4.

An overflow crowd was on hand for the event, which drew a host of VIPs, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, longtime Detroit Congressman John Conyers, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, and Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

The celebration also was highlighted by a capsulized showing of the documentary film, “Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith,” a movie directed by Jesse Nesser, the nephew of best-selling author Mitch Albom. The film was part of the March on Washington Film Festival that played out over a 10-day July period in the nation’s capital.

“The documentary tells the story of 10 extraordinary years, four groundbreaking cases, and one unconventional man who went from janitor to judge, and whose rulings forever changed the face of civil rights in the United States,” said Robert Raben, founder of the March on Washington Film Festival.

For Judge Keith, the evening proved to be “unprecedented” in many respects.

“To be at the Supreme Court, in a setting where I was surrounded by so many friends and colleagues from throughout my career, was amazing in and of itself,” he said in its aftermath. “It was an overwhelming experience, sharing the joy of it with so many people who have dedicated their lives to the cause of justice and civil rights. I was humbled to be in their company.”

The film offers a riveting look at Keith’s life through a series of his landmark rulings, principally as a judge on the U.S. District Court bench in the Eastern District of Michigan. The 90-minute documentary made its premiere in June 2015 at the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, attracting a sell-out crowd that included Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, former Governor Granholm, and Mitch Albom, who served as executive producer of the film. Albom, a Detroit Free Press columnist, wrote the foreword to the Keith biography, “Crusader for Justice,” a book authored by Wayne State Law Professor Peter Hammer and former Free Press columnist Trevor Coleman.

Keith, appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1967 by then President Lyndon B. Johnson, has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for the past 40 years. His 1967 appointment, of course, came during a turbulent time in his native Detroit, which erupted that summer in a widespread civil disturbance that claimed the lives of 43.

As the film depicts, among his early judicial challenges as a federal judge was the Pontiac busing case in 1969, when a group of black parents sued the Pontiac school system, charging that it promoted racial segregation and discrimination. The case would grab national headlines over the next few years as Judge Keith ruled that Pontiac had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, ordering busing as a judicial remedy.

The backlash to his ruling was immediate and was punctuated by the August 1971 bombing of 10 Pontiac school buses by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The decision by Keith, which was upheld on appeal, became a lightning rod in George Wallace’s 1972 presidential bid. It came during a time when Keith was dealing with a housing discrimination case in Hamtramck, a ruling also chronicled in poignant terms during the film. The 1971 case still reverberates today, some four decades after Keith ruled that the city of Hamtramck practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build affordable new housing for displaced residents.

It would take until 2010 before the first semblance of housing remedies would take place, according to Keith. On September 10 of that year, a special ceremony was held in Hamtramck to mark the launch of a $50 million housing development on the city owned lots, effectively bringing to an end the nation’s longest-standing housing discrimination court case.

The documentary showing at the Supreme Court also delved into a 1971 class-action discrimination suit against Detroit Edison, which ironically lost in court decades ago but 44 years later helped sponsor the Keith film.

Such a turnabout was “fitting,” said Keith in remarks echoed by film director Nesser, who first met the federal jurist four years ago.

“I remember well that meeting,” Nesser told the audience at the Supreme Court. “I asked Judge Keith to ‘tell me a story.’ Simple as that.

“We eventually ran out of tape,” Nesser said to a round of laughter.

The Keith story-telling, rich in detail and replete with historical significance, helped the movie “go to places where books can’t,” according to Nesser.

The judge’s work also has served to inspire scores of his former law clerks, many of whom attended the July 20 celebration and have held true to his calling to “use the law as an instrument for social change.”

Count former Governor Granholm among them.

“Judge Keith was fond of telling us that, ‘We are here for a greater purpose than ourselves,’” Granholm said during a panel discussion following the film showing. “I had plans to be a civil rights lawyer, but then I was offered the opportunity to run for attorney general (in Michigan).

“I went to Judge Keith for advice,” Granholm recalled, relating the doubts she harbored about whether she was ready for such a political undertaking. “He told me not to think small, but to look beyond the shores. They were such words of wisdom.”