Andre Davis was a high-ranking judge. He left to lead Baltimore's law department. Why?

The first time Mayor Catherine Pugh called Judge Andre M. Davis to offer him a job as Baltimore’s top lawyer, he turned her down.

And the second time.

Eventually, though, Davis gave in.

“My easy and quick answer was ‘no,’ ” Davis recalls. “‘I’m not leaving the bench. I love the work.’

“She came back a couple of times and prompted me to think more deeply about possibilities.”

It’s not often a federal appellate court judge — even one, like Davis, in semi-retired senior status — leaves to become a municipal employee. But Davis made the jump.

The reason? Baltimore — with its high crime rate and its police department under court-ordered reforms — needs the help.

“I really enjoyed my work. It was very fulfilling. But the impact, the potential impact, is limited,” says Davis, who will be paid $188,000. “As city solicitor, we’re talking about 600,000 people day-to-day that you can really have an impact on the quality of life. The potential impact I can have on people’s lives was a very big part of my decision.”

The move, surprising to many in Baltimore, and in the legal community, was immediately seen as Pugh’s biggest hire. Legal analysts called it a “great coup” and a “stroke of genius.”

“Certainly the city is fortunate that someone with his integrity and experience would do that,” says University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, who taught Davis. “It’s not a typical career trajectory. There aren’t too many people who would leave the court under the Supreme Court and come back to local government.”

To understand why Davis did, it helps to understand his history — from his early days growing up in East Baltimore to his rise to become one of the first African-American judges on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Born 68 years ago in segregated Baltimore, he was the first kid from the city selected for an elite scholarship program to a prestigious New England prep school. He was a star at the University of Maryland’s law school. He’s prosecuted bank robbers and drug dealers, but also strongly condemned unconstitutional policing from the federal bench.

It also helps to understand that his dream was never to be a judge. It was to be a great civil rights lawyer.

Davis, who lives in Oakenshawe with his wife, Jessica Strauss, has seen Baltimore change in many ways — some for better, he says, some for worse.

In the Baltimore into which he was born, Davis’ mom couldn’t deliver him at Johns Hopkins Hospital, less than two blocks from the family’s East Baltimore home, he says, because “very few black doctors had privileges at Johns Hopkins.”

“On a very snowy night in February 1949, my young mother had to take us over to Provident Hospital” in West Baltimore, he says.

He entered kindergarten in 1954 — the year the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He attended the all-black School 109 on Broadway and Ashland and then Booker T. Washington Junior High School.

Baltimore was a bustling city of nearly 1 million people with a strong manufacturing base. Most of the men in Davis’ family worked for Bethlehem Steel. White flight — followed by black flight — had yet to leave the scourge of vacant homes that plagues the city today.

East Baltimore “was wonderful in a way that it’s hard to describe today,” Davis says. “It was a community in which people looked out for each other. My mother told me, ‘Somebody’s always watching you,’ and it was true. You couldn’t go very far without eyes on kids.”

Davis’ mom and stepdad emphasized education.

“There was an Enoch Pratt library branch half a block from where I grew up,” Davis says. “My sister, my brother and I spent most afternoons after school in that library. Reading, reading, reading. The importance of education was something that was drilled into us early and often.”

Davis delivered the Baltimore News-American — in what he boasts was the “largest paper route in Baltimore history” — and says it taught him about entrepreneurship.

Baltimore Sheriff John Anderson lived a couple doors down.

Davis “was always very studious. He was a guy in the neighborhood that everybody looked up to,” Anderson says. “Everybody knew at 10 or 11 years old, there goes a young man that’s going places. It was his attitude, his demeanor. He was always caring about his neighbors: Helping people take their groceries home, shovel their snow. … I’m proud to say that man is my friend.”

Davis excelled in school, and was the first Baltimore kid to be offered a Ford Foundation scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. George W. Bush graduated in the class before he arrived. Jeb Bush entered just after Davis graduated.

In a school of 650 boys, he was one of four African-Americans.

“After two weeks, I was ready to come home. But I stuck it out,” Davis says. He played football, basketball and baseball and worked as a disc jockey. He remembers no racial hostility from classmates.

“I was received very well,” he said. “I had a racially charged incident not related to the school. I was called the N-word by a group of young men driving by. But that was a singular occurrence. Never had a racially charged incident in three years at Andover.”

It was at the University of Pennsylvania that Davis happened upon his career path. He was taking a course in constitutional law.

“It was at that moment that I decided, ‘Yeah, I’m going to law, and I’m going to be the greatest civil rights lawyer America has ever seen,’” he says. “That was my goal.”

After graduation, he returned to Baltimore and enrolled in the University of Maryland law school.

“He hit in the law school like a firestorm,” Gibson recalls. “Everyone at the school knew this was somebody special who was destined for great things.”

Davis became president of the Black Law Students Association and excelled at moot court.

“He would regularly be rated the best speaker at national competitions,” recalls Harriet E. Cooperman, a partner at the Saul Ewing law firm, who went to law school with Davis.

He earned his degree in 1978, and clerked for U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman in Baltimore and Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr.

He worked for city government as an assistant housing manager, working in Cherry Hill and at the McCulloh Homes. He later became a federal prosecutor — arguing cases against bank robbers and drug dealers.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke met Davis when both were young lawyers at the firm Piper & Marbury.

“He was really hard working, very thorough and a great writer,” Schmoke recalls.

In 1987, when Davis was not yet 10 years out of law school, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him an associate judge in Baltimore District Court. Three years later, Schaefer elevated him to Circuit Court.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Davis to the U.S. District Court for Maryland. Clinton tried to elevate him in 2000 to Fourth Circuit Court of the Court of Appeals, but the Senate did not consider the nomination before Clinton left office the following year.

Finally, in 2009, President Barack Obama elevated Davis to the appeals court. He filled the vacancy left by the death of Murnaghan, for whom he had clerked out of law school.

As a federal judge, Davis made decisions that pleased both the left and the right.

In 1999, he struck down a Baltimore law that required 20 percent of the city's public works contracts go to minority companies. Davis ruled the law violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

“He decided his rulings based on the law,” Cooperman says. “He didn’t rewrite the law, even if he didn’t like what it says.”

In 2003, he delivered stinging rebukes to the Baltimore Police Department as he threw out evidence in two cases, including a major city heroin seizure, after finding police acted illegally.

In one case, he accused a police detective of preparing a search warrant affidavit that contained "knowing lies."

In the other, Davis said from the bench that city officers had failed to show a basic understanding of constitutional rights.

"I think the community is entitled to a higher level of performance, to a higher level of professionalism,” he said. "They're fumbling and bumbling, and they don't understand the law. They don't understand the Constitution. They don't understand the limits that the law places upon them."

Diana Morris, the director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, describes Davis as “very thoughtful.”

“He’s really aware of how structural racism has shaped the policies and practices we have,” she says. “He wants people not to be constrained by their conditions.”

His time on the bench has not been without missteps.

In 2006, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out convictions that sent three Baltimore gang members to prison for decades, saying Davis had improperly encouraged the defendants to plead guilty.

"We can only conclude that the district court's role as an advocate for the Defendants' guilty pleas affected the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings," Judge Diana G. Motz wrote.

Davis, interviewed after the decision was announced, said he overreached.

"I think the panel got it right," he said. "I think I crossed the line. Even the best judges sometimes makes mistakes."

In one of his final rulings this year, Davis drew praise from the left. He wrote in support of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia who sued to be allowed to use the boys' bathroom at his public high school.

Davis compared Grimm to the plaintiffs in historic civil rights cases.

"Today, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination persist — and are sometimes even promoted — but by challenging unjust policies rooted in invidious discrimination, G.G. takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail," he wrote.

Davis says he felt it was important to treat Grimm with dignity.

“I was seized with this notion that some court, some judge actually acknowledge the humanity that was before us,” Davis says. “These cases are not just abstractions. These are real people with real lives and real aspirations for themselves and their families. …

“I wanted Gavin to know there was at least one judge who saw him, who heard him, who acknowledged him and who understood his journey. … He’s a hero in my eyes.”

All the while, Davis was working in the community. He was a board member of the Open Society Institute-Balimore and a founding member of the Baltimore Urban Debate League.

He says he sees no conflict working on community issues while a member of the bench.

“There are those who take a very strict approach,” he says. “I don’t believe that’s required and I’ve taken a different path. Judges are constrained, there’s no question about it. As a result of my retirement, I get my First Amendment rights back.”

Pugh said she persisted in pursuing Davis because she knew he was the “best and the brightest.”

“I told him the city needed him,” she said. “He’s right in his element.”

It wasn’t only Pugh’s persistence that brought Davis to city government. He sees his role as city solicitor as an opportunity to shepherd the reform and revival of Baltimore’s police department.

He sees police reform, required under a consent decree negotiated by the city and the U.S. Justice Department, as working hand in hand with reducing crime. Officers, he believes, will emerge from court-ordered training with a great sense of pride that they are experts in constitutional policing.

“I intend to be very heavily involved with the state’s attorney and all of the stakeholders in growing efforts to reduce crime,” he says. “When people see a reduction in criminal activity and more effective policing, that will create a gravitational pull to the city. People want to live in the city.”

He also sees it as an opportunity to do more. Davis says his office is exploring whether class-action lawsuits might help fight structural racism.

“We are looking at ways that we can not just defend the city appropriately but to actually bring affirmative lawsuits against those entities and companies that have wronged us,” he says. “That’s something we’re constantly studying.”

After 68 years watching Baltimore change, Davis says he’s inspired by the growth of the downtown and southeast parts of the city. But he says West Baltimore needs much more help.

”They have been underserved and we’ve really got to do a lot more,” he says. ”We really need to get more resources to the community in the inner city. We need to address the issue of poverty in this city.

“I was reminded yesterday that 85 percent of Baltimore city public school students live in poverty. 85 percent. That’s intolerable. We’ve got to address that.”

He thinks Baltimoreans of all races need to work together to solve the problems.

“There was Freddie Gray, the uprising, and now we’re all coming back together,” he says.

To those who have watched Davis’ career, they are expecting more big things. Schmoke calls Davis and consent decree monitor Kenneth Thompson the “right” people to work on police reform.

Cooperman says she was “surprised” when she heard her old classmate was becoming city solicitor.

“I smiled and said that makes sense,” she recalls. “He’s done the judge thing. This is a challenge. Baltimore really needs help. It needs somebody strong. He’s up to the challenge. This is his opportunity to really make an impact and be himself.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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