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Profile: Damon Keith
Damon Keith was a participant or observer in the following events:
The US Supreme Court, in what becomes informally known as the “Keith case,” upholds, 8-0, an appellate court ruling that strikes down warrantless surveillance of domestic groups for national security purposes. The Department of Justice had wiretapped, without court warrants, several defendants charged with destruction of government property; those wiretaps provided key evidence against the defendants. Attorney General John Mitchell refused to disclose the source of the evidence pursuant to the “national security” exception to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The courts disagreed, and the government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower courts’ rulings against the government in a unanimous verdict. The Court held that the wiretaps were an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment, establishing the judicial precedent that warrants must be obtained before the government can wiretap a US citizen. [US Supreme Court, 6/19/1972; Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259] Critics of the Nixon administration have long argued that its so-called “Mitchell Doctrine” of warrantlessly wiretapping “subversives” has been misused to spy on anyone whom Nixon officials believe may be political enemies. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259] As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. [John Conyers, 5/14/2003]
Opinion of Justice Powell - Writing for the Court, Justice Lewis Powell observes: “History abundantly documents the tendency of Government—however benevolent and benign its motives—to view with suspicion those who most fervently dispute its policies. Fourth Amendment protections become the more necessary when the targets of official surveillance may be those suspected of unorthodoxy in their political beliefs. The danger to political dissent is acute where the government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect ‘domestic security.’ Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent.” [US Supreme Court, 6/19/1972]
Justice Department Wiretapped Reporters, Government Officials - In February 1973, the media will report that, under the policy, the Justice Department had wiretapped both reporters and Nixon officials themselves who were suspected of leaking information to the press (see May 1969 and July 26-27, 1970), and that some of the information gleaned from those wiretaps was given to “Plumbers” E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy for their own political espionage operations. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 258-259]
Conyers Hails Decision 30 Years Later - In 2003, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) will say on the floor of the House: “Prior to 1970, every modern president had claimed ‘inherent Executive power’ to conduct electronic surveillance in ‘national security’ cases without the judicial warrant required in criminal cases by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Then Attorney General John Mitchell, on behalf of President Richard Nixon sought to wiretap several alleged ‘domestic’ terrorists without warrants, on the ground that it was a national security matter. Judge [Damon] Keith rejected this claim of the Sovereign’s inherent power to avoid the safeguard of the Fourth Amendment. He ordered the government to produce the wiretap transcripts. When the Attorney General appealed to the US Supreme Court, the Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith. The Keith decision not only marked a watershed in civil liberties protection for Americans. It also led directly to the current statutory restriction on the government’s electronic snooping in national security cases.” [John Conyers, 5/14/2003]
The Sixth US Court of Appeals in Cincinnati unanimously rejects the Bush administration’s claim for blanket secrecy regarding immigration court proceedings (see September 21, 2001). In a 3-0 ruling, the court rules in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft that the administration’s secret deportation-hearing policy goes too far in restricting the public’s right to know what the government is doing. Selectively closing individual deportation hearings for national security reasons might be justifiable, the court rules, but the government cannot simply sequester all such hearings. Appeals court judge Damon Keith, a Carter appointee, writes: “In an area such as immigration, where the government has nearly unlimited authority… the press and the public serve as perhaps the only check on abusive government practices.… The executive branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye and behind a closed door. Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately in deportation proceedings. When the government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightly belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation. The Framers of the First Amendment did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us. They protected us against secret government.” Keith is well known for his widely cited ruling of 30 years before against a government program of warrantless wiretapping (see June 19, 1972). [Savage, 2007, pp. 95] Another appeals court will rule in favor of the Bush administration in a separate lawsuit on the same issue (see October 2, 2002).
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