5th 2023 Post – The Honorable Michael J. Davis

Blog Posts where Race is an Aspect of the Themes

Uluru - Ayers Rock

#1: Stunning Trial Lawyer

I met Michael Davis in the summer of 1976. I had just completed my first year of law school. I was told at school if I wanted to be a trial lawyer to go and watch great trial lawyers. I went to the government center in downtown Minneapolis. The clerk’s office was not much help.

Outside in the courtyard sat three middle-aged men in suits with vests and pocket watches. I later learned they were prosecutors. I approached and introduced myself and asked if any good trials were going on that I could watch. They almost in chorus said, “Yeah – go watch that guy Davis. He is good. But do not believe a word he says.” [An inside prosecutorial joke]

I went to watch. Jury selection was in process. A debonair tall Black lawyer who talked softly was conducting a thorough voir dire [questioning of prospective jurors]. A Black man was an accused defendant of a heinous crime. All prospective jurors were white. Mr. Davis left no stone unturned. He explored every myth and stereotype about Black men regarding sexual prowess and violence. He uncovered every conceivable bias that a white person, male or female, could harbor about this Black man accused of the crime. This was a master class in jury selection the likes of which I could not imagine.

I went to the trial for two weeks and followed all testimony. As the trial progressed, on breaks, Mr. Davis was kind enough to say hello to me. He was busy, consumed with his responsibilities, but he still more than acknowledged my existence.

The trial ended in an acquittal. I followed Mr. Davis to the cafeteria. I had in retrospect the stupid audacity to tell Mr. Davis that I would have found the defendant guilty. He surprisingly took no umbrage – at least to my face. He schooled me on what had happened: mistakes by the prosecutor, burden of proof, etc. He was thorough, kind and not judgmental.

Later in my career I clerked for the first female District Court Judge in Hennepin County – The Honorable Suzanne Sedgwick. On her death, she was eulogized by an Appellate Court Judge and colleague as a Giant Sequoia. That She was in every way.

During my clerkship I saw the trial lawyer Mike Davis appear in Judge Sedgwick’s Courtroom a number of times. He was always impeccably prepared. He spoke with dignity, clarity and persuasion on behalf of his clients. His reputation as one of the finest trial lawyers was well known among Judges and my fellow clerks. He was passionate standing in the shoes of his clients and giving them voice. He was also, always forthright and candid with the Court.

Mike Davis worked for the Legal Rights Center and Hennepin County Public Defender’s office. He handled hundreds and hundreds of cases during the “trial lawyer” phase of his career. He took many cases to full trial verdicts always seeking Justice for his clients.

#2: Compassionate Judge

Judge Michael J. Davis was appointed to the Hennepin District Court bench and served with distinction for 11 years. He was then appointed to the MN Federal District Court bench. Senator Paul Wellstone was his movant and supporter.

This small piece is in no way an effort to summarize the details of Judge Davis’ career. In Federal Court, he handles complex civil and criminal trials of all types. He had numerous cases go to the Supreme Court and was affirmed. He handled mass tort cases, coordinating all aspects of the thousands of cases filed with lawyers and their clients from all over the country. He was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the first Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court set up by Congress following 9/11. He was and is a larger than life local and national figure. Link to Wikipedia’s page on Judge Davis.

As the first Black Chief Judge in the Federal District Court of Minnesota, he led a great deal of outreach to diverse communities and championed many diversity efforts with an inspired vision for inclusion of the entire community. Click here to watch a video shown during Judge Davis’ retirement lunch from the Chief Judge position. The password to watch the video is FBA.

I want to tell one story that is one of the greatest endorsements of Judge Davis’ career by one of the greatest human beings ever. As fate would have it, President Mandela came to where we lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1999. It was the last year of President Mandela’s first and last 5 year term as President of South Africa. He was traveling with his cabinet. The first day on his arrival in Minneapolis, he spoke at a large hotel ballroom sponsored by the NAACP. It was a packed house filled to the brim with people likely exceeding all fire codes. Nelson Mandela’s words and charismatic presence did not disappoint.

The next day he spoke at a luncheon of 200 that was a private gathering. It included Corporate CEO’s who had sponsored his visit and political dignitaries and others. By that time President Mandela’s autobiography had been out for 5 years. I had given many copies of it away. I had also given a copy to a political dignitary who was sitting close to where President Mandela was seated. I asked the dignitary on entering if he had read the book. He said no, but wished he had. I was with my long-time friend, The Honorable Michael J. Davis. I asked the dignitary if he could arrange for me and Judge Davis to meet President Mandela. The dignitary asked the Secretary of State of South Africa traveling with President Mandela if we could meet the President. After a few minutes she turned to look at us from across the room. The Secretary of State could see that my friend was a tall distinguished middle aged Black man.

Ten to fifteen minutes passed and the Secretary of State and President Mandela rose to their feet, turned around and she motioned with her hand for us to approach. Judge Davis and I rose and with excited anticipation approached President Mandela. He extended his warm soft hand and I, of course, reciprocated. I spoke briefly and said what an honor it was to meet him. Judge Davis addressed him as Mr. President and said what an honor and privilege it was to meet him. Then silence. I broke the silence by saying; “Mr. Mandela you are shaking hands with a Federal District Court Judge.” I said; “Such Judges are few in number, appointed by the President for life and approved by the Senate and the decisions they make can have a dramatic effect on people’s lives.” I then articulated that only one Court of Appeals exists between Judge Davis’s decisions and The U.S. Supreme Court. As I spoke, President Mandela still had grasp of Judge Davis’s hand and he now grasped Judge Davis’s hand with both of his hands. As he held Judge Davis’s hand, he looked him up and down from head to foot. He did so slowly, more than once. President Mandela then said; “I can tell by looking at you that you are a compassionate Judge.” It is fair to say both Judge Davis and I melted and floated back to our seats.

President Mandela then proceeded to give the keynote luncheon address. He spoke for about 25 minutes. He had one consistent and repeated theme – “You as fortunate Americans have too much.” President Mandela developed this theme in detail and compared American’s wealth and the wealth of those in the room to the lack of wealth of so many billions around the world. He encouraged all of us to share. He was very complimentary of American Democracy and the economy of the Country, but persisted in explaining wealth inequality. It was apparent that some in the room were becoming uncomfortable. That did not phase President Mandela. He was passionate about his message that we all must share.

As we exited the room President Mandela and Judge Davis were about 15 feet apart and President Mandela looked at Judge Davis and said, “Nice to meet you.”

Inserted below is a picture of Judge Davis’ portrait commissioned by the Federal Court as he stepped down as Chief Judge and proceeded to senior status. I was honored to be one of the speakers that day in the ceremonial courtroom. It was a packed courtroom. I recommend that any and all go and view this portrait in the MN District Court in MPLS. A list of the speakers and a Transcript of the speakers as well as the words of Judge Davis spoken that day is linked here.

  • Chief Judge Tunheim, page 2,
  • Ms. Tara Norgard, page 3,
  • Mr. Mike Essien, page 9,
  • Dr. Josie Johnson, page 13,
  • Judge Lyonel Norris, page 17,
  • Senior Judge Donovan W. Frank, page 23,
  • Mr. William Manning, page 30,
  • Mr. Jason Bouldin – Portrait Artist, page 36,
  • Ms. Sara Wahl, page 41,
  • Senior Judge Michael J. Davis, page 42

    Link to transcript of Portrait Unveiling Proceeding. It remains for me a most memorable and impactful proceeding. Also linked is the bio of the portrait artist that Judge Davis speaks about.

    The portrait speaks loudly and softly of the “compassion” of this humble servant as well as the complexity of the man and the complexity of the job of Judging.

    Judge Michael Davis and Bill Manning

    #3. Tremendous Friend

    Last, I can barely write to express my gratitude for this special friendship. Friendships with busy people can ebb and flow. Our friendship never ebbed. In public or introducing him to someone, he was always Judge Davis. In private, he insisted on “Mike.” We had many a dinner of course at Restaurant Alma and elsewhere. We took in sports and cultural events. We mostly agreed on matters, but sometimes we disagreed and did so vigorously and never personally. We solved several of the world’s problems more than once, but new ones kept popping up. We analyzed politics from all angles. We relished in talking about our kids and our wonderful spouses.

    One aspect of friendship I want to highlight – showing up – presence. I was in the hospital once for ten days and could not eat or drink. Tubes were coming out of me everywhere. I was sick. I rarely slept. There were more mornings than I could count where I would wake up and Judge Davis, at 5 a.m., was sitting in my room. Not a lot to say. He had talked to my wife, Ruth. He was just present and present to my pain. And we laughed and it hurt. I knew my empathetic nurses well. When he came in, I would feign protest and ask, “Who let this man in?” They responded, “We know who he is, Mr. Manning.”

    After those 10 days, I was home for three months. Mike continued to see me frequently. He seemed to always come when Ruth was making milkshakes for me. I would again feign protest, “He is just coming to drink half my milkshakes.” We would usually watch a game together. We also got together over the years to watch March Madness. Each of us regaled the other with our superior past athletic skills – always conceding at the end that self-delusion and laughter is the best balm.

    It is an honor for me to share this friendship that I have been fortunate to receive from this special man.