Remembering Federal Judge Damon Keith

16 hours ago
Originally published on May 11, 2019 2:54 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take a few minutes to remember U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith. He died last month at the age of 96. Memorial services for him are being held today. Judge Keith served on the federal bench for more than 50 years, and his rulings in cases involving school desegregation, employment discrimination and government surveillance made him one of the most influential jurists of recent decades. But Judge Keith was also known for hiring and mentoring a remarkably diverse group of clerks, many of whom have gone on to become prominent in their own right. One of them is former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and she's with us now from Berkeley, Calif.

Governor, thank you so much for talking with us.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM: Oh, you bet.

MARTIN: And we are sorry for the loss...

GRANHOLM: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of this important figure in your life and the lives of many other people. You've referred to Judge Keith as a mentor and even more than a mentor. Tell us a little bit, if you would, about how you came to clerk for him and why he meant so much to you.

GRANHOLM: Well, first of all, more than a mentor - I called him my father in Michigan. I - my own father was three time zones away in California, and Judge Keith really became like a surrogate father to me when I was in Michigan. And I came to clerk for him because I - when I went to law school, I was the editor-in-chief of the Civil Rights Law Review at Harvard - Civil Rights, Civil Liberties Law Review - and I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.

And I wanted to clerk for a judge who had that line of cases that demonstrated a commitment to that. And Judge Keith obviously had that, so I applied to him and felt so honored when he selected me because he was such an icon. So I became to be, you know, part of the Keith family of law clerks. And believe me, it's quite an extended family.

MARTIN: Does any moment in your clerkship stick out to you that you can share with us without violating sort of confidentiality of the chambers or anything of that sort?

GRANHOLM: You know, if I had to answer that question and say that most soaring memory that I have about him is how he treated us. I mean, he walked the talk in terms of making sure that people felt seen. So Judge Keith is like an icon, and he goes to all these big events, and he's always the keynote speaker and all of that. But he would invite the clerks and the secretaries to every one of those speeches. And before he even begins speaking, he would make sure that these lowly law clerks and the lowly administrative staff in front of these big kahunas always stood up and got applause. You know, we felt like, wow - we are really something special. And he would tell us that.

And there - if you can imagine in your life thinking about a boss that had - that you are still in touch with or that you've remained in touch with through your whole life because they care so deeply about you personally, that's Judge Keith. This is why all of his clerks are going to be standing vigil at the casket - because we all feel this same sense of connection to somebody who cared so deeply about us.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what caused him to care so much about treating people in that way or about making sure that his clerks and his secretaries and his administrative staff were all recognized? Do you have any idea why he felt that way?

GRANHOLM: Yeah. I mean, in his life, he never forgot where he came from. You know, he came from obviously a legacy of slavery which was not distant from him. But he also - I mean, he was reminding us always that when he got a job as a janitor sweeping floors, he was asked by somebody, what do you want to be? And he says, I want to be a lawyer. And the person said, keep mopping because that's not going to happen for you. Because obviously, he was - it was way back in the days, African American man, and people didn't see that he had possibility.

But he knew deep inside that he did. He used to tell us that we walk - this is his quote. He used to tell us all the time. We walk on floors that we never scrubbed. We walk through doors that we never opened. I love that he never forgot where he came from.

MARTIN: And, speaking of beginnings, you were a white woman from Canada.

GRANHOLM: Right.

MARTIN: He was also known for hiring a large number of African American clerks at a time - and apparently, this is still not as common as many people...

GRANHOLM: Oh...

MARTIN: ...Believe and understand it should be.

GRANHOLM: ...A large number.

MARTIN: But...

GRANHOLM: I mean...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

GRANHOLM: Yeah. Yeah. No, no. I think I was only the second white clerk that he had ever hired. He really made sure that African Americans had an opportunity, so he went specifically to Howard to recruit people. And I think - I mean, I think one of the reasons I was privileged enough to be able to work for him was because I was the editor-in-chief of the Civil Rights Law Review, and so he knew that I was committed to the cause. But he really was known for uplifting the clerks that came behind - you know, the African American clerks in particular, obviously - who wanted to work for a court of appeals judge because it's a high-level clerkship. And he wanted to make sure the door was open for them.

MARTIN: How would you want people to think about Judge Keith and his legacy?

GRANHOLM: I can only answer this in the immediate context because I'm so struck by the parallels with his decisions that were all about transparency in government and sort of what is happening today politically in Washington, D.C., and the failure to respond to subpoenas and all that. I mean, he wrote some amazing decisions that had - that I think led to The Washington Post's motto being democracy dies in darkness. He wrote democracy dies behind closed doors because he had written decisions about transparency in government which will live long beyond his time on the bench and his life on earth. And those lessons are lessons I hope we take to heart today in the current context.

MARTIN: That's Jennifer Granholm. She's the former governor of Michigan, a former clerk to Judge Damon Keith. And she's currently teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.

Governor, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRANHOLM: You bet. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.