Episode 19 - Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis

Episode 19 November 13, 2023 00:20:55
Episode 19 - Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis
Forward Together
Episode 19 - Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis

Nov 13 2023 | 00:20:55

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Show Notes

Join Wichita State President Rick Muma when he talks with the Honorable Stephanie Dawkins Davis about her career and her experience as a Shocker. Judge Davis serves on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and has appellate jurisdiction over the federal district courts in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. The “Forward Together” podcast celebrates the vision and mission of Wichita State University. In each episode, President Rick Muma will talk with guests from throughout Shocker Nation to highlight the people and priorities that guide WSU on its road to becoming an essential educational, cultural, and economic driver for Kansas and […]
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Episode Transcript

[00:00:06] Speaker A: Hello, Shocker Nation, and welcome to the Ford Together Podcast. I'm Wichita State University President Rick Buhmer. My guest today is the Honorable Stephanie Dawkins Davis, who serves as the US Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Judge Davis is a 1989 Wichita State graduate. It and she went on to earn her law degree from Washington University's School of Law. She began her legal career in products liability and commercial litigation, and she also did pro bono work for survivors of domestic abuse and litigated prisoners rights cases. She joined the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1997, where she served in both the Civil and Criminal divisions, and she also served as the executive assistant of the US Attorney from 2010 to 2015. In January 2016, she became the magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. And in 2019, she is appointed to serve as the United States District Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In her current position, she is the only the second African American woman in history to serve on the 6th Circuit. [00:01:16] Speaker B: Welcome to the podcast, Judge Davis. Well, good afternoon, Judge Davis. It's so good to finally get to meet you. I've read a lot about you and about your accomplished career and wanted to have you on my podcast here at Wichita State University. So we can not only showcase you as one of our alums, but it's always good to be able to share stories of our alums to our students so they can see what's possible and what you've done in your life. So I'm going to start by just asking a simple question. How did you end up coming to Wichita State, and what kind of impact does your university degree here have on where you are today? [00:02:02] Speaker C: Well, thank you so much for having me, Dr. Muma. I'm very happy to be circling back to my old alma mater, Wichita State. I arrived at Wichita State in 1985, August of 1985, and it was really between Wichita State and the university of Kansas in terms of which schools I would attend. I participated in a competition for scholarships that I'm not sure if the school still has or not, but incoming freshmen that had a certain GPA would come in for a battery of tests and those kinds of things, and I got a great scholarship from Wichita State. I also had a family member who was attending the university at that time. So those two things put the thumb on the scale. And even though I actually had my residential assignment at the University of Kansas, I made a pivot and became a shocker instead. [00:03:04] Speaker B: Well, we're so glad that you did. Now, remind me where you're from or where you were from before you came to the university. [00:03:11] Speaker C: Yep. So I grew up in Kansas City and graduated from Schlegel High School in Kansas City, Kansas. And I and a number of my classmates actually attended Wichita State together. [00:03:24] Speaker B: So any lessons that you could share with our listeners about things that you may have learned along the way in your education here in Kansas and starting out in? We have just so you know, we have a large number of students who are from Kansas City, Kansas, and also on the Missouri side who study here. And that's one of our largest growth areas of students coming to the university. [00:03:49] Speaker C: So a couple of takeaways for me, in addition to really receiving what I think is an excellent education, one of the things that was really, I would say, shaping for me were the leadership opportunities. I was very active on campus. I was a member of student government, and I also participated in a number of other on campus activities and had the opportunity to engage in leadership activities. And the exposure that I got, really, to issues of the world were phenomenal. When I was at Wichita State, Warren Armstrong was the president of the university, and President Armstrong had a series of speakers who would come in and address the university while I was a student there. We had Alex Haley, who was the author of Roots. We also had one of Desmond Tutu's daughters came and spoke to the university. These were experiences that I never would have had if I hadn't been at Wichita State. I also had excellent professors. I was in the College of Health Professions, but I also had a minor in economics. And so I'd say, I remember Professor Graham and Professor Maury Penner. I had great. And Dean Radigan, I think, really welcomed everyone to the university. And all of those things really helped to shape me, not just as a student, but also as a student leader and someone who was engaged. [00:05:26] Speaker B: Yeah, well, you mentioned three names there that all those individuals are still around in some way, either retired but still connected to the university. And it's interesting that you mentioned Dr. Radigan. Any student I talked to or alum that I talked to who was here during that time, they mentioned him because he's made a huge impact on so many of our students today in the past. [00:05:54] Speaker C: And, of course, count me amongst them. [00:05:57] Speaker B: Yeah. Well, yeah, it's kind of intriguing. You told me that where you said earlier that you were a student in the College for Health professions, that's where I used to teach as a faculty member. And I believe you had a degree or got a degree in healthcare administration, is that right? [00:06:14] Speaker C: That's right, yes. [00:06:15] Speaker B: And so tell me how you made that transformation from that area to practicing law. Was there a connection there, or was there anything that you were doing to utilize those skills that moved you on into the law area? [00:06:33] Speaker C: So I would say that I began as I was either premed or physical therapy major, because I really thought that I was going to be a hands on medical professional. And a couple of things kind of changed that. I was always involved in debate and forensics and public speaking and very interested in things that were going on in the advocacy, I would say. Nevertheless, I was also interested in health professions. When I took organic chemistry, it kind of shifted what I thought I should do. The organic chemistry class was super challenging and made me really think, okay, are you going to pursue really a career in the sciences, or are your talents better suited to maybe something that has to do with advocacy and public speaking? And so I kind of made that shift after my sophomore year or during my sophomore year going into my junior year, and I thought I should probably change my major. But I also wanted to change my major to something that I was both interested in. And if I'm being honest, that would not extend my stay at the university. I wanted to be completed in four years. And so I shifted to healthcare administration, which was great because I did have a lot of accounting and econ classes, and married that with some of the health business and other business classes. I had a co op experience at one of the local, actually at a nursing home and a local. It's probably an HMO now, but back then it was a PPO and thought that that was wonderful. And so when I made the shift, thinking I'm going to get into the legal field, my thought was actually that I would get a joint JD and master's in healthcare administration, which Washington University did offer ultimately, because it was going to kind of extend my studying, and I shifted in another area. I did not do the masters in healthcare administration, but that was kind of the organic way that it all came about. [00:08:53] Speaker B: So tell our listeners, what's the day like for you and what do you do in terms of your work? I'm kind of familiar with what happens and different lawsuits that all universities get involved in from time to time, but I don't know if everybody really fully understands the kind of work that you do and how that all plays out in a day. [00:09:16] Speaker C: Sure. So the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals covers federal appeals from four different states. So I'm here in Michigan, but we also hear appeals from Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee as a district judge, which is what I was before, that's a trial level judge. And so I heard federal lawsuits that were filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, which is basically the eastern side of the state. Once I was appointed to the circuit court, that meant that I would hear cases not just from Michigan, but also from those other three states that I mentioned, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. So our judges, and we have judges from all four states that make up the 6th Circuit. And so what that means is that whereas as a trial judge, I would sit as the singular judge and have a case from its inception all the way through trial, as an appellate judge, I'm only hearing the appeals from judgments in those states, and I sit with two other judges in a panel of three to determine whether or not there was an error made in the trial court or if there is some grounds to overturn a decision that was made in the trial court. [00:10:31] Speaker B: So tell our listeners, what are you most surprised about in your role now as a judge compared to when you were an attorney and doing that kind of work? What is surprising to you about the work that you're doing and has it changed in any way since you've been in your role? [00:10:56] Speaker C: Well, I can't say there have been very many surprises. I was a federal practitioner for about 18 years, and I had been a lawyer for almost 25 years before I joined the bench. And so I had seen lots of issues that would go before the court. But there have been some, I guess, small surprises in making the transition from district court to circuit court. So I mentioned as a district judge, you're wholly responsible for your docket and you're in charge of your docket. So you kind of make decisions about the pace of things, kind of what's going to happen. And there's flexibility in terms of if you have a trial that is supposed to go for a week and maybe it winds up going for eight days and you need to shift some things, you could do that. And also, you don't have to consult with anyone else because you're making those decisions. You have to follow the law, obviously, but it's just you. As a circuit judge, I mentioned that I said on panels of three, rarely, I shouldn't say rarely, but as frequently as not, neither of the other two judges that are on the panel are here in Michigan with kNow, I might be on a panel and it might have me being from Michigan and then another judge from Tennessee and another judge from Ohio or from Kentucky. And so, number one, the decisions that I make are not just me. At least one other judge has to agree with me. And sometimes, most of the time, all three of us will agree, but at least two of us have to agree about something. And that also means that we have to communicate throughout the process with one another about how the opinion is going to look, whether or not we agree with those things. And so it's a much more collaborative effort than when you're sitting as a district judge and simply taking in the evidence, applying the law, and moving forward. So that's been an adjustment, but a happy adjustment because I have great colleagues here on the court with me. [00:13:02] Speaker B: Yeah, you may not be able to answer this, but are you seeing any trends in the type of cases that you all are reviewing at your level? [00:13:15] Speaker C: I don't know that there are any specific trends, but what I can say is that there are cycles. So, for instance, when you get close to an election cycle, you see a lot more cases that have to do with election type issues. So 2024, of course, will be an election year. Back in 2020, when I was a district judge, in 2019, leading into it, you see a lot more election type cases. So that's one area that I think that you see kind of comes in cycles. [00:13:51] Speaker B: Now, this is a little bit of a selfish kind of question comment. One of the things that I've noticed in my area of higher education, lot more complexities in the law and regulations. And just to give you a little bit of understanding, at Wichita State, when you were a student, we didn't even have an attorney on our staff. Now we have about eight attorneys that are currently reviewing regulations, laws. Of course, we get involved in disputes from time to time that we're involved in. It seems to me, in at least the higher education space, that that has becoming more complex. And, of course, I don't know if it has anything to do with just the changes of people's views of higher education. It might. I don't know. And the other complicating thing is, as administrations change in Washington, policies change in the Department of seeing, I'm assuming you review cases from time to time that involve higher education, university, college level kinds of cases. [00:15:05] Speaker C: Sure. And I think that in terms of the complexity, that might also have something to do with new laws that come into being title nine. And over time, you see more and more cases, and certainly as legislation is amended and there are new requirements and those kinds of things happen. And as people become more aware of the law, I think you see people pursuing actions pursuant to the laws and so certainly I would agree with you that untangling some of the issues that come up can be pretty complex. And I do think that you see, I don't know if you see more of them, but you certainly see different issues as the laws themselves get changed over time. And that we have seen. [00:16:01] Speaker B: Yeah, most of what we see a lot of is, of course, title nine, related issues, title seven, those sorts of things. And rightly so. There's just more expectations for us to make sure that people are able to come to the university and not feel discriminated or feel harassed and those sorts of things. And so we're in the throes of that all the time. So last question or comment. If I could get from you, if you could give any advice to some of our incoming students about what they should be thinking in their college time frame, their career at the university and going forward, what would that be? I know they'd really appreciate hearing from you, especially. [00:16:56] Speaker C: Yeah. So my best advice, aside from studying hard and making sure that they're doing the best that they can do in their classes, is also really taking advantage of all that the university does have to offer. One of the things that I loved about Wichita State was that it was a very welcoming environment. You immediately felt embraced by people who were high up. I mean, the fact that, well, of course, there's always Dean Radigan, but the fact that President Armstrong, for instance, would regularly invite students to things that were going on on campus, there were so many opportunities. Even if you're not in a leadership position within an organization, there were so many student organizations to become involved in whatever your interests were. And certainly there was also student government. So if you're someone who is very interested in how the university was developing its policies and how students were treated on campus and all of those kinds of things, there are so many different opportunities. I think that whatever your community it is that you find yourself kind of fitting into, there's a place for it, and so you should be engaged in it because it's going to serve you well. Whatever profession you ultimately enter into, both your activities in college, the connections that you make, and the experiences that you have, I think will help you to develop professionally down the line. So that would be my best advice for students. [00:18:33] Speaker B: Well, I think that's great advice, and I'm glad that you brought up your experience with Dr. Armstrong. We've been really trying to hold true to that and even previous presidents from me, between me and Dr. Armstrong, for instance, we host students over at the president's residence two or three times a week, different student groups, because I believe that particularly our student body, we have a very diverse student body, and I want them to be able to see the president's house. You got to see it to believe it. You might ask the president one day. [00:19:06] Speaker C: You don't know that's so important. [00:19:08] Speaker B: Yeah. So it's good to talk to you this afternoon. I hope you have a good weekend coming up, and we really would like for you to come back to campus at some point. The campus has doubled in size. I don't know if you remember the golf course that's now. [00:19:25] Speaker C: I do. [00:19:26] Speaker B: Yeah. It's an innovation campus. Now we have more than 50 companies located on our campus working with our students. Big companies like Deloitte, NetApp, and Spirit Aero Systems. Textron Aviation, headquartered on our campus. Some of these entities since really giving a lot of experiences, varied experiences for our students. I'd love for you to see that. It's always good for people who've been gone for a long time to come back because they just can't believe the transformation. [00:19:59] Speaker C: Well, that is very exciting to hear, and I'm going to make it a point to come back to Wichita State, and I'd love to meet you in person and then meet some of the students also. [00:20:08] Speaker B: Well, we hope we can arrange that. We'll hold you to it. You have a good rest of your day. Thank you for joining the podcast. [00:20:15] Speaker C: All right, thank you, Dr. Muma. [00:20:16] Speaker A: Take care, and thank you all for listening. Joining me next month where my guest in the studio will be Dr. Elizabeth King, President and CEO of the WSU foundation and Alumni Engagement. And be sure to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you listen to the Forward Together podcast. [00:20:32] Speaker B: Go Shockers. [00:20:43] Speaker C: Sponsorship for the Forward Together podcast is provided by Scott Rice, office works and the Shocker Store.

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