Champions of Justice: Motley, Keith to be honored at Ford Freedom dinner

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The Honorable Damon J. Keith, senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, has received many honors over the years.

But he said it will be particularly meaningful to be named a 2011 Ford Freedom Award Scholar on Tuesday, May 17 because a good friend will be honored posthumously on the same night.

The late Judge Constance Baker Motley will be the honoree of the 2011 Ford Freedom Award sponsored by The Ford Motor Company and the Charles H. Wright Museum.

The Ford Freedom Award is given posthumously to those who have dedicated their lives to improving the African American community and the world at large through their chosen fields. This year, the award is focused on the law.

The annual fundraiser benefits the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. This year's them is: "Champions of Justice."

As a Freedom scholar, Judge Keith is charged with furthering Motley's achievements for a new generation.

Speaking from his spacious courthouse office in downtown Detroit, Keith said he'll do so with pleasure, and praised Motley's "courage, brilliance, and commitment to equal justice under the law."

Motley wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first black woman judge appointed to the federal bench.

Keith spoke of the time a new law school graduate named Lani Guinier interviewed to clerk for him.

"I saw her brilliance and asked her to accept a job as clerk," he recalled.

But he said Guinier replied that she'd like to accept, but had already interviewed with Constance Baker Motley and would accept a job with Motley because she was her inspiration for going to law school.

Granier talked to Motley, who said that Keith was a good friend and that she couldn't go wrong accepting his offer.

In 1993, Granier gained national attention when President Bill Clinton nominated her for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, only to withdraw her name in a controversial move.

Later, after Granier became successful as an author, law professor and champion of civil rights, Motley kidded at an event that "Judge Keith stole my law clerk, Lani Granier!"

Juanita Moore, president of the Museum of African American History, said the Ford Freedom Award sums up the museum's mission, and that the event has it all: history, education, entertainment and achievement.

She said it's a very important event not just because it's the premier fundraiser of the year.

"It's also a great, great opportunity to really thank and recognize people who have made tremendous contributions not just to African American history but to American history," said Moore.

Also on Tuesday, Keith will present a free 2011 Scholar's Lecture during a program beginning at 9 a.m. In attendance will be students in grades 4 to 8 who have submitted an essay on the law.

Moore said Keith is a great role model for children, and expects his talk to encourage the children to consider their responsibility to give back.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson named Keith to his seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, where he rose to Chief Judge of the District Court. In 1977, he was nominated to the Sixth Circuit by President Jimmy Carter. In 1971, Keith ruled that Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in a decision known as "the Keith case."

The 2011 Ford Freedom Awards will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 17 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Avenue in Detroit.

Tickets for the 6 p.m. Ford Freedom Awards are $150, or $100 for museum members. They can be purchased at or by calling 313-494-5800.

Published: Wed, May 11, 2011


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