Richmond B. Keech, 89, a former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia who also had served as the city's corporation counsel and as an aide to President Truman, died of cancer April 13 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. He lived in Potomac.
Judge Keech served on the court for 20 years before becoming chief judge in 1966. He took senior judge status a year later. Over the years, he tried a variety of notable cases. He gained a reputation as a judge who was hard working, conscientious, and who exhibited courage, common sense, and humor.
A lifelong area resident, he had a long and notable career of local public service before joining the court in 1946. He was assistant D.C. corporation consel from 1925 to 1930, then spent four years as people's counsel for the District. From 1934 to 1940, he was vice chairman of the D.C. utilities commission, followed by five years as D.C. corporation counsel. From 1945 to 1946, he served the Truman White House as administrative assistant to the president for legal affairs.
When his appointment to the U.S. District Court was announced, The Post said in an editorial, "No appointment President Truman could have made to the court would have been more appropriate or praiseworthy. During nearly all his adult life Mr. Keech has been a public servant of the highest caliber."
A year after taking the bench, Judge Keech presided over the highly publicized trial of Carl A. Marzani, in which the former State Department employe was convicted of lying about past communist affiliations and sentenced to prison. Judge Keech's handling of the case won wide acclaim and was twice upheld by the Supreme Court.
In 1950, he presided over what was perhaps his best-known case. In it, he found that the United Mine Workers union was not guilty of contempt involving a coal strike. While he issued a preliminary injunction against continuation of the strike, he refused to cite the union with contempt of court charges, finding that he could not "convict on conjecture" by the federal government that the union was responsible for the strike.
As a member of a special three-judge panel, he wrote a landmark opinion in the 1952 case of Bauer v. Acheson. The panel overturned the revocation of a passport to journalist Anne Bauer, bringing the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment into an opinion on the right to travel.
Judge Keech wrote, "Like other curtailments of personal liberty for the public good, the regulation of passports must be administered, not arbitrarily or capriciously, but fairly, applying the law equally to all citizens without discrimination, and with due process adapted to the exigencies of the situation."
The State Department adopted regulations requiring hearings for passport revocations and did not appeal the panel's decision.
In two cases in the 1950s, involing Aldo Icardi and James G. Cross, Judge Keech handed down decisions citing Congress for exceeding its constitutional authority.
He wrote "a perjury indictment may not be found on false testimony in response to questions which are not asked for the purpose of eliciting facts material to the committee's investigation, that is, facts sought in aid of the legislative purpose."
In other words, a lying congressional witness cannot be cited for perjury if the the purpose of the questioning is to build a perjury case. Questions asked by congressional authorities must be posed to elicit information in furtherance of the lawmaking process.
However, not all cases that came before Judge Keech on the court involved points of constitutional law, nor were they all of national interest. He presided over murder and drug trials, as well as such cases as utilities regulation. One memorable trial in 1950 turned on the point of whether or not a young cow was a dangerous animal.
Judge Keech threw out a $50,000 damage suit in which a man claimed that Arnold B. McKee should keep a tighter rein on such "dangerous" critters as heifers. The plaintiff said McKee's heifer had stepped on his foot and broken it. In a Solomon-like decision, the judge ruled that while heifers might be well be skittish, and were indeed nervous, they were not inherently dangerous.
Richmond Bowling Keech was born in Georgetown on Nov. 28, 1896. He was a 1916 graduate of the old Business High School, where he was a noted varsity fullback, and served with the Navy in the Atlantic during World War I. He then wandered the country, harvesting wheat, working for a time in a carnival. He earned his law degree at Georgetown University in 1922 and a master's degree in law a year later.
He had been a master of the foxhounds of the Potomac Hunt. He was a member of St. James Episcopal Church in Potomac, and had belonged to the Barristers, and to the Chevy Chase and Metropolitan clubs.
Survivors include his wife, the former Alice Cashell Berry of Potomac, and two stepchildren, William H. Berry of Rockville, and Cissy Grant of Potomac.