Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1979: Anna Diggs Taylor is sworn in as a federal judge, making history

By: - November 15, 2023 5:05 am

Anna Diggs Taylor (left) and S. Martin Taylor on Nov. 15, 1979 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On Nov. 15, 1979, Detroit attorney Anna Diggs Taylor was sworn in as a federal court judge for Michigan’s Eastern District. The 46-year-old was the first African-American woman to serve in the post. She was appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter. 

Attending the ceremony included United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young; Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young; Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin and Taylor’s husband, S. Martin Taylor, Michigan Employment Security Commission executive director. 

Coalition announces plans to remember ‘horrific’ murder of Vincent Chin in 1982

Anna Diggs Taylor earned degrees from Barnard College and Yale Law School. Her first husband, Charles Diggs Jr., was Michigan’s first African American member of the U.S. House Representatives. They divorced in 1971. 

As a young attorney, Taylor, a Washington, D.C., native, worked to defend civil rights workers in the South during “Freedom Summer” of 1964. During the 1970s, Taylor worked as a staff attorney for the city of Detroit.

In 1984, she sentenced Ronald Ebens, a white man, to 25 years in prison for beating 27-year-old Vincent Chin, a man of Chinese descent, to death with a baseball bat outside a Highland Park bar. An appeals court, however, overturned the verdict and Ebens was acquitted at retrial. 

In 2006, Taylor struck down then-President George W. Bush administration’s warrantless domestic spying program that secretly intercepted international phone calls and emails of people in the pursuit of terrorism suspects following 9/11.

The same year, during the annual Women’s Equality Day ceremony, Taylor was honored as “Woman of the Year.” The effort was sponsored by the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Ultimately, she became chief judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and retired in 2011.Taylor died at age 84 on Nov. 4, 2017 in Grosse Pointe Woods.   

In a February X post, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote about Taylor. 

“She paved the way for many others behind her,” Nessel said.  


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.