His childhood dream was to become a lawyer
by Glenn Tschimpke
Circuit Court Judge Henry Davis would like to clear up a few things for the record. First, he is not related to Judge Brian Davis. The names are just a coincidence. Second, the name is where the similarities stop.
“The way to distinguish it, I’m the good-looking one. He’s the other one. You can put it in the paper,” said Davis. “He claims to be the good-looking one and I’m the other one. He’s wrong and I’m right.”
An ongoing feud between members of Jacksonville’s staid judiciary with a normally reserved Davis lobbing insults? Nah. Just good-natured ribbing.
Davis has probably never been accused of being a social butterfly. He speaks in low tones, prompting the listener to lean slightly forward to catch small bits of his life. A fairly private man, he offers the listener thimble-sized peep holes into his life away from the bench.
Every lawyer and judge has his or her own intrinsic reasons for choosing law as a career. Davis knew as a boy he wanted to be a lawyer.
“I was born in 1948. It was the mid-1950s and the civil rights movement was just beginning then,” he remembered. “There was a newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, which was a black newspaper. It covered civil rights stories throughout the country. I would read those articles. Those kind of things made me start thinking about becoming a lawyer. I thought by being a lawyer, I could make a difference.”
Had he been born 15 years earlier, Davis would have been hard pressed to find a law school in Florida that accepted blacks. A black lawyer in the South was not necessarily the safest or desirable profession, but Davis was determined.
After graduating from Douglas Anderson High School, he spent his first two years of higher learning at Florida Junior College [now FCCJ], followed by another two years at the University of Central Florida. Like so many of his generation, Uncle Sam invited him to Vietnam, which turned out to be “the best experience” of his life.
“I went to Officer Candidate School and served three years in the Navy as a supply officer aboard a ship, the USS Marias,” he said. “I spent some time over in Vietnam in the South China Sea.”
He didn’t see direct action, but as a supply officer and sometimes disbursing officer, he was the most popular man on the ship come payday. By virtue of his position, he was a man who could get things. He was a man who could fix things. He was a man who could take care of problems — almost any problem.
After the Navy, Davis renewed his career goal to become a lawyer, eventually graduating from Florida State University in 1976. After a stint with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., he came home to Jacksonville to pursue private practice for the next 12 years.
“It was a combination of civil and criminal defense work,” he said. “It was more civil than criminal. Basically, it was personal injury claims, workers compensation claims, probate estate, real estate, types of things that consumers would handle as well as some divorces. Not anything major.”
Davis tried his luck at a judicial appointment twice. Once just to see what would happen. Nothing did. The second time he was serious. Gov. Lawton Chiles took him seriously, too.
“One day I was sitting in my office and I got the word from my secretary Marion that Gov. Chiles was on the phone,” he said. “I knew the process, generally, was that he would call the ones that were being appointed. So I stopped whatever I was doing to take the call.”
Chiles told Davis not to let him down.
“I try not to,” said Davis. “It’s an honor to have been appointed by him. I try to keep my word. I’ll do everything I can not to have him regret it, had he lived.”
It’s been a decade since Davis was appointed by the late governor. Since then, he has rotated through the 4th Circuit’s various areas. He started in civil, then moved to family law, where he would see pro se divorce litigants empty evidence from a brown paper bag to be sorted through. He moved to criminal division, back to civil and finally back to criminal. Circuit court cases can be tough stuff for judges over time. Davis tries not to let it affect him too much.
“It depends on the type of case,” he said. “You see a lot of cases with children victims. I can’t separate myself. There has to be a better way to protect children. I don’t know what it is. The country is spending billions of dollars trying to do this. The Department of Children and Families is probably doing the best they can. But they’re always under the gun. Sometimes I’ll wake up at three or four o’clock in the morning thinking about these things.”
To unwind, he’ll go for a walk, do some reading or play tennis. He’s a father of two daughters and enjoys the company of his wife, Linda. Vacation time has been scant lately, but Davis has dreams of going west some day.
“I like the mountains,” he said. “I’m not much of one for going to the ocean. I guess I’ve heard enough about these sharks and people drowning. One thing I would like to do is take a family vacation to Montana or Wyoming and just get on a train and go through the mountains. But the way the rails have been coming out from under these trains, I don’t think I’ll do that for a while. I might take a train trip, but not through the mountains. Maybe some type of flat place. If you fall, you don’t fall so far.”
At 53, Davis still has years of good work ahead. He’s counting on his wife and his peers to usher him off the bench if he gets too senile.
“I plan to work in some capacity as long as I am able,” he said. “I’d like to serve as a judge until retirement age. I’ll stick around until 70 if I can or 72 if they let me. But I’d certainly like to leave if I become