One Year Later: Honor Judge Keith with Justice and Political Accountability

“Selective information is misinformation.” –Judge Damon J. Keith

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq

Now perhaps more than ever, we are faced with an array of political briefings and daily press conferences as elected officials barrage communication vehicles with the latest developments of their administration’s efforts in fighting the novel COVID-19 that has partially shut down the nation. We often hear the “we are all in this together” theme repeated in these constant messages, but as the debilitating impact of this virus has shown, some of us are suffering much worse than others, exposing the charade of togetherness. Instead, we have seen grand displays of political division, and even worse, the exposure of the overwhelming effects of longstanding poverty and racism as the virus has significantly impaired low income and African American communities.

While these are unprecedented times and we should do all we can to protect ourselves, our families, and our fellow neighbors, the urgency and novelty of the moment render critical analysis more necessary than ever. This includes holding political leadership accountable and demanding essential policies to secure the gaping social safety net for the most socioeconomically vulnerable members of our society. Furthermore, these trying times demand that we put all available power, resources, and capital behind solutions that will help the many and not simply the few.

Perhaps no one personified these essential ideals more than the late Damon J. Keith of Detroit, former Senior Judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. As we reflect on this first anniversary of the passing of Judge Keith, there is no better way to honor his legacy and continue his mission than to mirror his courage by putting our full weight behind justice for the oppressed and refusing to stand down from holding political leadership accountable.

During his time, Judge Keith was subjected to the dehumanizing policies of Jim Crow, which legalized discrimination against African Americans in fields such as education, employment, and housing, all necessary components of daily life. Because of this prolonged era of legal segregation and a failure to adequately remedy its devastating permeation of inequality, we now find African Americans at or near the bottom of many socioeconomic categories nationwide. Additionally, despite comprising a lower percentage of the population, African Americans are dying at alarmingly high rates from COVID-19 in many states, including Michigan, a statistic created in part from longstanding discrimination and lack of access to health care, medical treatment, and nutrition, all stemming from the legacy of slavery and decades of Jim Crow law.

Judge Keith rose through the perilous adversities of Jim Crow from a segregated Unites States Army to the upper echelon of American jurisprudence. Yet what makes his legacy so powerful is that he did not simply settle into a personal and comfortable life well lived. Instead, with his ascension to power, he carried many others along the way with remarkable courage solidified by judicial actions that reversed the longstanding barriers to equity for African Americans. Using his judicial authority, he eliminated employment discrimination policies to ensure better job opportunities for African Americans, instituted desegregation measures to afford equal access to education for black school children, and condemned housing discrimination that threatened the removal of African Americans from their homes. Judge Keith ensured that justice would be served where it had long been denied.

Significantly, Judge Keith also exacted political accountability of the highest measure when just a few years into his tenure on the bench, and as one of few African American federal judges at the time, he ruled against surveillance efforts of President Richard Nixon’s administration. Rather than bowing to the glow of the presidency, Judge Keith, understanding the power and essence of government checks and balances, ruled that the Nixon administration’s wiretapping was a constitutional violation, a decision that was upheld unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite political unpopularity and the many threats as a result of his decisions, Judge Keith remained true to his philosophy of equality and strong moral core that guided his decisions toward justice. And he did so while demanding transparency of government officials, something that is crucially missing from our society today, especially right here in the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

We see the lack of justice and political accountability in the water shutoffs by the administration of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, which was declared a human rights violation by the United Nations in 2014 during Duggan’s first year in office. We see the failure of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to appoint her promised cabinet level poverty secretary and her failure to declare a right to literacy for Detroit schoolchildren, a heinous position thankfully overruled by the very U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals where Judge Keith routinely rendered justice. 

We are seeing the daily blows to our community by the coronavirus, even though these same political leaders hold press conferences to assure us “we are all in this together” while questionably trying to lift restrictions to stimulate the economy without a detailed or long term plan to protect the public health. And while we know the virus will come to an end at some point, the injustices it exposed will remain.

Moving forward, as we strive toward life post COVID-19, we must demand a transformation of economic policies that will ensure all communities will be able to endure financially not only in times of disaster such as this, but as a basic human liberty. Furthermore, we must demand political accountability for failed socioeconomic policies, such as water shutoffs and denying basic educational necessities, and keep the pressure on elected officials until these demands are met.

Too often, fighting for justice and demanding political accountability are described as extreme and radical positions, but as demonstrated by the life of the late great Judge Damon J. Keith, these ideals are necessary for ensuring equality and guaranteeing democracy. So long as we continue to live these truths, Judge Keith’s mission and legacy will carry on for decades more to come.

Tina M. Patterson is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

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