Nearly 21 years after he became the first and, to date, only black federal judge in Minnesota history, Michael Davis will step down as chief U.S. district judge next summer, he disclosed in a letter to President Obama this week. He will remain on the bench as a senior judge.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken announced Davis’ decision in a news release in which they also said that they had formed a judicial selection committee to advise them on recommending a successor.
Davis underscored in a separate letter to the senators on Monday that he continues to be a strong advocate of a diverse bench, noting that the late Sen. Paul Wellstone “had the vision and understood the importance of a diverse judiciary.” Wellstone had recommended that President Bill Clinton nominate Davis to the federal court.
“I hope,” Davis wrote to Klobuchar and Franken, “that you and President Obama will continue the legacy of Senator Wellstone in diversifying the federal judiciary.”
Expressing his gratitude to Wellstone and Wellstone’s wife, Sheila, both of whom died in a 2002 airplane crash, Davis also cited the support of Ken Tilsen, the late St. Paul civil rights attorney and a close friend of Wellstone’s. Tilsen recommended Davis to Wellstone.
Davis has served on the federal bench for nearly 21 years, the last seven as chief judge for the district of Minnesota. Before that, he was a state district judge for about 11 years, having been appointed by the late Gov. Rudy Perpich. He previously worked as a defense attorney — one year at the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul and five years each at the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis and the public defender’s office in Hennepin County.
“It is my present intention to continue to render substantial judicial service to the court as a senior judge,” Davis, 67, wrote in his letter to Obama.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Davis said, “I’m not going anywhere. I am not leaving the bench. I will still be a judge, but I am giving someone else an opportunity to be appointed.” He will step down as chief judge July 1 and move to senior judge status in August.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank, a close friend of Davis’, said Davis had been “a trailblazer” both as district and federal judge, especially in community outreach efforts. He said Davis frequently spoke to public school students with a message of “hope to communities of color, telling students, ‘if I can do it, you can do it.’ ”
Frank said Davis had also been in the forefront of advocating diverse hiring practices within the federal court system, including staff and security.
Klobuchar noted in a statement that Davis “made history as the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in Minnesota and he has served our state well for over 20 years.” Franken said Davis “will no doubt be hard to replace.”
The selection committee announced by the senators will be co-chaired by former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger and R. Ann Huntrods, an attorney at Briggs and Morgan law firm.
Other members of the committee include Edward Toussaint, former chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals; Lolita Ulloa, managing attorney for the victims services division in the Hennepin County attorney’s office, and Lisa Swenson, managing attorney for the Third Judicial District public defender’s office.
The selections committee will make its suggestions, but the final recommendation to Obama normally rests with the senior elected federal official in the state who belongs to the same party as the president; in this case, that is Klobuchar.
After his own review, including background checks, Obama would nominate that person, who would have to be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate as a whole. Republicans will form a majority in the Senate and the Judiciary Committee next year. Given the partisan congressional politics, the nominee’s chances could be uncertain.