NEW YORK — Damon Keith, a federal judge in the Midwest whose rulings championed equality and civil rights, notably in a landmark Supreme Court decision striking down Nixon administration wiretapping in domestic security cases without a court order, died Sunday in Detroit. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Debbie Keith.
In one of the federal judiciary’s longest and most prolific careers, Mr. Keith, a Democrat, was a fountainhead of regional rulings with national implications. He attacked racial segregation in education, housing, and employment; conservative efforts to limit African-American voting; and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, secret hearings to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed suspicious.
Mr. Keith’s tenure spanned more than a half-century, first as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s choice for a district court judgeship in Detroit, with jurisdiction in Eastern Michigan (1967-1977), then as President Jimmy Carter’s selection for the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, presiding in Cincinnati over cases arising in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee.
In a blistering 2016 dissent in an Ohio case that restricted early and absentee voting, Mr. Keith accused two Circuit Court colleagues of scorning African-American voters and the memory of black people slain in the struggle for voting rights. In a frankly emotional rebuke, he incorporated into his opinion photographs and biographies of 36 victims, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“By denying the most vulnerable the right to vote, the majority shuts minorities out of our political process,” he wrote. “The unfettered right to vote is the bedrock of a free and democratic society. Without it, such a society cannot stand.”
One of America’s oldest federal jurists, Mr. Keith served in the segregated Army in World War II, cleaned bathrooms at The Detroit News, attended historically black undergraduate and law schools, and witnessed deadly riots in Detroit in 1967.
In the most prominent case of his tenure, Mr. Keith ordered the Nixon Justice Department in 1971 to halt wiretapping without court orders in its zeal to prosecute radicals accused of conspiring to bomb a CIA office in Ann Arbor, Mich. As grounds, he cited the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment freedoms from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
After the Sixth Circuit upheld Mr. Keith’s decision, the Nixon administration appealed to the Supreme Court. At stake, potentially, were warrantless wiretaps in many prosecutions that Attorney General John N. Mitchell had brought against anti-war activists and other opponents of administration policies.
The high court, by 8-0, rejected the government’s claim of constitutional authority to protect the nation from internal subversion by wiretapping “dangerous” radicals without court warrants. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who wrote the opinion, leaned heavily on the threat to free speech that he saw in the unbridled government wiretapping of dissenters.
The American Civil Liberties Union said: “If this claim had been upheld there would have been virtually no limits to the range of governmental intrusion on the liberty that would have been implicitly authorized once the government invoked the talisman of ‘national security.’”
In another case, the Supreme Court declined to review Mr. Keith’s order to bus 8,700 of 23,000 students to desegregate public schools in Pontiac, Mich. His 1971 order, one of the first of its kind in the North, led to massive busing, attacks on school buses, death threats against the judge, and the convictions of Ku Klux Klansmen for dynamiting 10 school buses.
But five years after Pontiac’s busing began, The New York Times reported that bitter feelings that had all but paralyzed the school district had faded, and that busing had become a fact of life. “Both blacks and whites are learning to understand each other better, to fear and distrust each other less, and to see individuals as individuals,” the report said.
In 1979, Mr. Keith and the Sixth Circuit upheld the Detroit Police Department’s affirmative action program. A lieutenants and sergeants group sued to overturn the five-year-old program, saying that white officers had been unjustly passed over for promotion. But Mr. Keith wrote that promotion tests had been slanted against blacks, and that affirmative action “undoes years of discrimination.”
And in 2002, the Sixth Circuit held that the Bush administration had violated the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press by conducting hundreds of secret hearings to deport immigrants suspected of ties to terrorism. Other courts issued contradictory rulings, and the secret hearings went on for some time. But the case yielded one of Mr. Keith’s more memorable opinions.
“Democracy dies behind closed doors,” he wrote.
Damon Jerome Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, the youngest of six children of Perry and Annie (Williams) Keith, who had migrated from Georgia. The elder Keith worked at Ford’s River Rouge plant for $5 a day. Damon and his siblings, Luther, Perry, Napoleon, Marie, and Annie, grew up in poverty. For a time during the Depression, the family received welfare assistance.
Mr. Keith graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939. At West Virginia State College, he waited on tables and cleaned a chapel and the college president’s house to pay his way. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1943. Drafted into the wartime Army, he served in Europe in a black unit largely assigned to kitchen duties and was discharged as a sergeant in 1946.
He received his juris doctor in 1949 at the Howard University Law School, where his mentors included Thurgood Marshall, the future first black justice of the Supreme Court, and William Hastie, the nation’s first black federal judge. Mr. Keith received a master of laws degree at Wayne State University in 1956.
In 1953, he married Rachel Boone, a doctor. She died in 2007. In addition to his daughter Debbie, he leaves two other daughters, Cecile Keith Brown and Gilda Keith, and two granddaughters.