Biden chooses Trump judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis for 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — President Joe Biden on Wednesday nominated U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis to serve on the the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The White House said that, if confirmed, she would be first Black woman from Michigan to serve on the 6th Circuit and only the second Black woman ever to serve on the Sixth Circuit, which handles appeals from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

District Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis

Davis, a former federal prosecutor from Farmington Hills, was appointed by former President Donald Trump nearly three years ago to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. She was confirmed by the Senate by voice vote in December 2019 and is based at the U.S. courthouse in Flint. 

"Judge Dawkins is a talented lawyer, an outstanding judge and a person of great integrity," said former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade, who has known Davis for 25 years and now teaches at the University of Michigan law school. 

"We could not find a better candidate to serve on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. In fact, she would make an excellent Supreme Court justice.”

There is a vacancy on the appellate court since Judge Helene White took senior status. 

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who follows the judicial selection process, predicted that the Senate would "expeditiously" confirm Davis, given her "wealth" of relevant experience. 

"Elevation of district judges to the appeals courts is a venerated convention that all modern presidents employ, because the nominees have already been confirmed once by the Senate, bring much relevant expertise and have comprehensive, accessible records that the Senate can evaluate," he said.

Since joining the Eastern District court, Davis has been overruled by the 6th Circuit at least once. The 2020 case involved a Democratic group that sought to invalidate Michigan's ban on transporting voters to the polls. 

Davis had found that the transportation ban conflicted with U.S. election law, but an appellate panel overruled her 2-1, saying the federal law made exceptions for state laws.

The panel also said it was "strange" that the federal law Davis had cited had been in place for almost 50 years and "no one" had tried to use it to challenge Michigan's statute or other state statutes related to non-monetary election expenditures.

More:Federal appeals panel upholds Michigan's voter transportation ban

Davis grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. She was a young student when she became interested in the law because of the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 declared racial segregation of children in public schools unconstitutional.

She graduated from Wichita State University in 1989 and Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 1992.

Davis previously served as a magistrate judge, appointed in 2016. One of her high-profile cases involved arraigning Amor Ftouhi in the 2017 terrorism and stabbing attack at Flint's Bishop International Airport. Ftouhi was later convicted.

Davis started her career as a civil defense attorney at the firm Dickinson Wright PLLC in Detroit before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she worked as a federal prosecutor for 18 years, starting in 1997. She was later appointed by McQuade as her executive assistant U.S. attorney in 2010 — a post she held through 2015. 

One of Davis' last major cases as an assistant U.S. attorney was as part of a team prosecuting former Detroit Treasurer Jeffrey Beasley and others in a corruption trial involving the city’s pension funds. 

The case aired allegations that Beasley and two others defrauded the bankrupt city's pension funds by accepting kickbacks and bribes in exchange for approving $200 million in corrupt deals. Beasley was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2015.

Davis also served as a deputy unit chief of the Controlled Substances Unit and as high-intensity drug trafficking area liaison. She also was involved in community initiatives such as the Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust and co-chaired the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.  

Davis was the first Black woman that Trump had nominated to the federal bench as president. Her nomination had followed months of negotiations between the White House and U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. 

Stabenow and Peters both applauded Wednesday's nomination, with Stabenow saying Davis had "demonstrated her excellent work as a thoughtful and fair judge." 

“I applaud the historic nomination of Judge Davis and look forward to working alongside my colleagues to see to it that she is confirmed by the Senate," Peters said.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

mburke@detroitnews.com