Damon Keith Black Judg opt

JUDGE DAMON J. KEITH (seated center, left) with members of the Michigan Black Judges Association.



Nearly 30 judges from courtrooms across the state attended the special 90th birthday celebration service for Judge Damon J. Keith, senior judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church on Sunday, July 8. His actual birthday was July 4.

Rev. Dr. Charles G. Adams preached a special sermon that many who attended will not soon forget.

“We didn’t ask him to be a Black judge,” Dr. Adams began. “We asked him to be a good judge. Without Damon Keith there would be no Obama.” The congregation stood and applauded loudly. “We honor you today for your diligence, courage and life. Judge Keith has strengthened our democracy, expanded our rights and affirmed our people, particularly those who suffered any form of exclusion or mistreatment.”

In the United States v. Sinclair, commonly referred to as the Keith Decision, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith’s landmark ruling prohibiting President Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Hartford was nearly filled to capacity, including numerous special guests: former law partner Nate Conyers, former Detroit Tiger Willie Horton, U.S. Rep. John Conyers and Michigan Chronicle editor Bankole Thompson. As Dr. Adams completed his sermon entitled “Blessed Is This Man.” Judge Keith approached the podium but not without giving his longtime friend a hug and thanking him for the wonderful birthday celebration. As he addressed the crowd, the judge told some very funny stories and some very serious stories, and at one point became emotional.

He introduced former Willie Horton who stood. Judge Keith’s Willie Horton story was a funny one: “My wife Rachel and I had a special room in our house that we called the Willie Horton room. Every time Willie would get in trouble they would call me and say, come get Willie. I would go get Willie and put him in the Willie Horton room for the night so he would be ready to play ball the next day.”

He continued, “When I finished law school there were no judges of color. G. Mennen Williams appointed the first Black judge, Charles W. Jones, to Recorders Court. Wade H. McCree was the second. Because his name sounded Irish we took his green and white signs (without a picture) to Dearborn and other suburbs to get their vote. We had another sign we used in the Black neighborhoods with his picture. And that’s how he got elected.”

As he concluded, Judge Keith spoke directly to the four front rows filled with judges all dressed in black robes. “Judges,” he said, “You’re walking on ground you did not scrub. You’re walking through doors you did not open. I want you to continue to scrub the floors for those who follow you. I want you to open some doors so that others can go through them. You’ve got to leave footprints. We fight for equal justice under the law.”

The Hon. Damon J. Keith was most recently named senior judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In 2010 he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta. And in 2011, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights opened at Wayne State University Law School. 

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