U.S. Senate confirms Michigan's Davis to 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted 49-43 to confirm Michigan's Stephanie Dawkins Davis to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. 

Davis, a former federal prosecutor from Farmington Hills, is set to become the first Black woman from Michigan to serve on the 6th Circuit, according to the White House. She is also only the second Black woman ever to serve on the circuit, which handles appeals from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Michigan U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis addresses the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2, 2022. She is nominated for the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Davis has served on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at the courthouse in Flint for nearly two and a half years following her selection by former President Donald Trump in 2019. 

"Judge Davis has spent her entire career in Michigan, and we are better for it," U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. 

"Judge Davis has done an outstanding job every place she has been serving the people of Michigan, and I have no doubt she will continue her strong record of public service on the United States Court of Appeals," Stabenow added. 

Davis previously served as a magistrate judge, appointed in 2016. 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 then Detroit U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade as her executive assistant U.S. attorney in 2010, a post she held through 2015. 

At the U.S. Attorney's Office, Davis also served as a deputy unit chief of the Controlled Substances Unit and as high-intensity drug trafficking area liaison and led the office's diversity efforts, Stabenow noted. Davis 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 likely moved swiftly up the judicial ranks because of her many years with the U.S. attorney's office litigating civil and criminal cases and her time as a magistrate judge before joining the district court bench, said Carl Tobias, who studies the judicial selection process at the University of Richmond School of Law. 

"Elevation from the district to the appeals court is a measure that all modern presidents use, because the nominee has already secured Senate confirmation, has a judicial record and possesses much relevant experience," Tobias said.

Davis was the first Black woman that Trump nominated to the federal bench as president. Her nomination in 2019 followed months of talks between the White House and Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township before a deal was reached that included a judicial nominee for Michigan's Western District. 

During her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, Davis insisted twice that she doesn't subscribe to a particular judicial philosophy label like textualist or originalist. 

"The manner of analysis that I apply in any given case is based upon the precedent in that area," Davis said. She noted a quote by Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who said in 2015 that “We're all textualists now.”

"We're going to start with the letters that are on the paper in front of us, and we are going to begin there," Davis said. "Next, we're going to look to precedent. We'll look to the actual structure and context of the actual statute and so on."

Since joining the Eastern District court in 2020, Davis has been overruled twice by the 6th Circuit, including on a procedural question on a prisoner's motion to vacate his conviction, according to a questionnaire she submitted to the panel. 

The more recent case involved a Democratic group that sought to invalidate Michigan's ban on transporting voters to the polls. Davis found that the transportation ban conflicted with U.S. election law and enjoined its enforcement, but a 6th Circuit panel overruled her 2-1, saying the federal law made exceptions for state laws.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, at the hearing noted the 6th Circuit's reasoning concluded that the law was to prevent a kind of voter fraud known as "vote hauling," or paying a voter to get to the polls. 

"Was it your opinion that vote hauling should be allowed?" Blackburn said.

"Senator, no," Davis said, adding that she was limited in what she could say because the case is still pending before her. 

Davis said the issue of vote hauling was argued before the 6th Circuit. "I was not familiar with that terminology before that," she added.

Blackburn asked if Davis believes in the constitutional delegation of responsibility to the states to set the time, place and manner of elections. "That's consistent with the law, yes," Davis said. 

Blackburn joined GOP South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee last month in voting to advance Davis' nomination by a 13-9 vote. 

Davis grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and 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 would fill a vacancy on the 6th Circuit that opened after Judge Helene White of Michigan took senior status.