This Local Judge is Taking Up the Torch

Inspired by landmark civil rights cases, Stephanie Dawkins Davis climbs the ranks of the court system.
Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis poses for a portrait inside of the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse on Saturday, Oct. 5 2022 in Downtown Detroit. // Photograph by Jenifer Veloso.

Sitting in her former chambers in Flint, Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis recalls growing up and learning about Thurgood Marshall winning the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit before he became a Supreme Court justice — witnessing what the law could do.

“That kind of opened my eyes to all of these possibilities. You know, he was doing things that folks before him hadn’t done,” she says. “He became the solicitor general. He was an appellate judge. He went on to the Supreme Court. And there, of course, have been many more since him who have done similar types of things.”

She probably doesn’t realize it, as she is hesitant to talk too much about herself, but she is among those people.

In May, the U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit with a bipartisan vote. She is the second Black woman to hold the post, and the first from Michigan.

“It was exciting, thrilling — daunting, frankly — but … humbling. If I could capture it all, that’s what I would say. It’s humbling,” she says, sitting near the end of a long conference table. She’d sat in the same place years before, for an interview to become a magistrate judge, intimidated by all the seasoned legal professionals that surrounded her.

That was one of many steps in an accomplished career in Michigan.

Davis grew up in Missouri and attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis. She and her husband moved to Detroit after graduation. “And we’ve been here ever since. We made our home here,” she says. She and her husband raised three children, now all in their 20s.

She started her career in Detroit at the Dickinson Wright law firm. She worked in civil litigation there for five years but knew she wanted to “move into the public sphere.” In 1997, she earned a position at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the civil division. She was there for three years before she moved into the criminal division, wanting to try cases. In 2015, she applied for that position as a magistrate judge.

“My thought process was, ‘I’ve been an advocate for many years. This is an opportunity to still be very involved in the resolution of disputes, but not as an advocate anymore — as someone who is evaluating the arguments, applying the law, weighing the arguments of the parties based upon what the law says.’ And that was exciting to me,” Davis says.

She later became a federal district judge, before being appointed to her current position as a circuit court judge. In her new position, she and other circuit judges hear the appeals of cases in the 6th Circuit, which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Her new chambers are back in the city where she started out, Detroit, at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse.

Some of the civil rights cases that inspired Davis as a younger woman are more tied to her own story than she realized at the time. She grew up 45 minutes from Topeka, Kansas, (the board of education in the landmark case was Topeka’s) and it turned out she had family members who were involved in similar trials that served as “precursors” to Brown v. Board going to the Supreme Court.

Despite being unaware of that personal connection at the time, she says Brown v. Board of Education stuck out in particular for her, because she had attended school in the 1970s, when the integration of schools was still in the process of being implemented. Having lived through the effects of that case makes her think of all that needed to happen for her to be in the position she now holds — and the role she is now playing for young people of color.

“There were all these people who came before me. The door was open and ready for someone to step through. And the fact that it’s me — it’s just very, very humbling,” she says.

Her appointment came at an interesting time — about the same time that Ketanji Brown Jackson was named the first Black female justice of the Supreme Court.

“Any time you’re seeing history happen, just as a fellow American, it’s exciting,” Davis says. “I think it is meaningful to have different people who are reflective of our society in these positions, so those coming up behind them have someone to look to and say, ‘Oh, this is doable.’”

This story is from the December 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition