After he began working as a computer programmer and systems analyst for a utilities company in the early 1970s, U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis decided he wanted to be an attorney.
He applied to the Baylor University Law School but was turned down. “My grades and law school admissions test scores weren't the best,” he said with a smile.
Davis said he asked then-law school dean, the late Angus McSwain Jr., if it was alright with him to keep checking back to see if space was available. McSwain said there was, so a persistent Davis began driving each weekend to Waco from Fort Worth to visit with McSwain in person and ask him for admittance to the law school.
Finally, McSwain relented and admitted Davis, telling him “anyone as tenacious as you must really want to be an attorney.”
That tenacity has served the judge well, both as a civil attorney, and in his years as a U.S. judge — he's served on the federal bench since 2002.
Davis eventually graduated from The University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in mathematics and completed a master's degree at night while he worked during the day for the Texas Electric Service Company as a computer programmer. It was the same company for which his dad, William “Bill” Davis had worked as an electrician when the judge was growing up in Fort Worth. That company later became Oncor, Davis said.
He said he was the first in his family to go into the legal profession, and credits both parents, including his mother, Virginia Davis, with showing him a good work ethic.
Davis began his career as an attorney handling civil trial cases for the Potter Minton law firm in Tyler in 1977 and spent 23 years there. He also ran for the Texas senate in 1982, but lost to Ted Lyon of Mesquite, he said.
In 2000, George W. Bush appointed Davis to the Texas 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler. But 2002 was Davis' year to become a federal judge, and he has served since then at the Tyler office of the Eastern District of Texas. “What I like the most about being a judge is helping people resolve disputes — the court system allows people to settle disputes peacefully,” he said.
When he becomes chief judge, Davis said he doesn't anticipate a reduction in his docket and will take on the added administrative duties that come with the position. The Eastern District of Texas has the highest caseload of any district in the U.S., Davis said.
Because of judge retirements, throughout the Eastern District, the number of active judges hearing cases has fallen from eight to six, Davis said. He added that there are also usually three to four senior judges who manage a reduced caseload.
There are six active judges and one senior judge in Beaumont, and when current Chief Judge (David) Folsom of Texarkana retires, there will be five active judges, Davis said.
Folsom, who has served as chief judge for three years, said he is taking full retirement in March, and looks forward to turning over the duties of that position to Davis. The job, he said is time consuming, and involves dealing with personnel issues and administrative complaints.
But Folsom has known Davis since Davis became a federal judge in 2002, and said he knows he will make a great leader. “We've become close friends, and I respect him as a judge, and I know he will do a great job,” Folsom said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Guthrie echoes these thoughts, and said she looks forward to having a chief judge working in the same building as she does. Past chief judges, she said, have worked in the Beaumont and Texarkana offices.
“Because Judge Davis was the former chief justice of the 12th Court of Appeals, he knows what it takes to be a good leader and he knows what it means to be a chief judge,” Judge Guthrie said.
Tyler attorney Andy Tindel, who has tried cases in Davis' court, said Davis' priority is his family, and he knows that the judge will handle all of his new duties and be there for his wife, children, and grandchildren.
“Judge Davis is very people oriented and gets along well with his fellow judges and the associated U.S. Courts personnel ... as well as the attorneys who appear before him.” Tindel said.
Tindel said that the heavy caseload Davis has managed over the years has made him an able judicial administrator, which will be a crucial asset in his role as chief judge.
Davis and his wife Rhonda have five children, including two sons who are also attorneys in East Texas.