He knew it when he was elected to the Chancery Court judgeship 12 years ago. Now, as he serves out his final days on the bench, Jim Davidson is more convinced than ever that domestic relations cases, especially child custody matters, deserve every ounce of attention a judge and the attorneys involved can give.
“Every case needs to be 110 percent,” Davidson said Dec. 5 after going through a relatively light docket in Clay County.
It was the last official visit in that county, one of the six he’s served in District 14 since being elected in 2006 and sworn in in 2007.
Davidson’s last day is Dec. 31, although he may have some opinions to finish up in the few weeks after his term ends.
In an historic year, Davidson and fellow District 14 judges Dorothy Colom and Ken Burns, all are retiring, bringing three new judges to Chancery Court in January handling cases in Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Webster, Noxubee and Chickasaw counties.
As the three new judges — Joe Studdard, who is replacing Davidson, Paula Drungole-Ellis, who is replacing Colom, and Rodney Faver, who is replacing Burns, go through training this week, Davidson is closing out dockets and saying farewells.
And as he does, he remains focused on child custody cases.
“Lawyers in those cases must be totally honest within ethical bounds in those cases. The judge must know every possible fact, every possible detail. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about what is best for that child. You literally are changing a life,” Davidson said passionately.
It is one of those custody cases that haunts Davidson to this day. It will for many years. It came about five years ago when Davidson had to decide whether the mother or father got custody of their toddler son. The mother was moving to South Dakota to take a new job with a considerable pay raise. The father was in a wheelchair recovering from a serious traffic accident and battling other health issues.
Davidson gave custody to the mother. Not too many months later, the mother and a new boyfriend ended up back in Lowndes County and, in 2015, when the child was 4, the new boyfriend shot and killed him with a rifle.
That man is serving life in prison.
“As soon as I heard about that, I went to my office and poured over my notes to see if there was anything, anything at all, that would have hinted at what was going to happen,” Davidson recalled, noting the boyfriend was not in the picture at the time of the ruling.
“I’ll remember that case forever,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“When you are granting custody, it’s the child who is going to undergo the most change. Let’s say a mother gets custody and is moving to Corinth after living in Columbus all her life. The grandparents live there, the child has friends there. Now everything is going to be new and different, new friends, new schools, new everything for the child,” Davidson stressed.
“I think about that. It’s tough,” he continued, praising his staff for the work they do to help judges “stay on track” and “stay on the issues.”
“You want to get it right, you spend a lot of time studying, agonizing. The custody and termination of parental rights are the most important things we do,” he said of chancery judges which also handle estates, contracts, wills, divorces and other kinds of cases.
Some hotly contested divorces also are on his list of cases indelibly etched in his mind. But more than anything, it’s the people he will remember — and miss.
“I love being a chancellor. It’s given me the opportunity to meet so many people, lawyers from all over, see parts of the area I never would have seen otherwise. And study facts and the law I never would have seen. It’s the people I will miss the most. It’s the people I will remember the most, too,” the 69-year-old said.
“I like what I do. I like being the one making the decision. In circuit court, judges are like the director of a play, making sure all the parts come together and then the jury makes the decision. In chancery, it’s the judge. I like that, I thoroughly loved it. I have learned there are lots of good people in these six counties,” he added.
Davidson decided not rot run again for several reasons. He worried that into the next term he could start suffering health issues that would force him to resign, something he wouldn’t want to do. Retiring now, he can enjoy his four grandchildren and not have to doubt his own mental or physical faculties.
And he still can oversee cases or play a role in the system.
He plans to take senior status, which will allow him to be appointed as a special judge occasionally. He also plans to take the necessary 14-hour refresher to get certified again as a mediator, something he did for 15 years before being elected.
“I campaigned on using more mediation when I first ran. And I used it more than it was being used before, but I don’t know if I used it enough,” he said of the process which allows a trained third party to hear both sides and try to guide them toward an agreement.
Some judges have suggested the state should require mediation, like Florida and some other states. Davidson isn’t willing to go that far.
“I like mediation, it takes the heat off the lawyers and the judge when the two sides can come to their own agreement. But we haven’t reached the point of requiring it yet,” he observed, expressing a fear it would turn into a “cottage industry” guided more by the business than fairness.
Some have resisted using mediation under the premise it is too expensive. Davidson sees it differently.
“Would you rather spend money now on five or six hours with a good mediator reaching a decision or having things drag out another year or more paying lawyers on each side?” he asked.
Likewise, those who argue chancery courts take too long to make decisions also may miss some of the nuances. While judges could marshall cases along by speeding up deadlines and cajoling attorneys, delays sometimes benefit those involved.
“Usually the cases that take a long time are complex cases by their nature. Or some of them involve so much built up angst that the delay actually makes it better. There is some merit to waiting, to letting there be some cooling off period,” he said, agreeing that some cases need to go through emotional stages similar to the stages of mourning.
“It’s sometimes just common sense,” he said. “Sure, I probably could have moved some along more. I think you always can say that.”
He’s cleared out space in the basement of his home for the files and mementos he must move out of his courthouse offices. As he makes those moves, he can return to some of the things he’s not been able to do as a judge.
“They warned us when we were first elected about how isolating it would be. You just can’t do some things,” he described. ”You can’t fraternize with lawyers, you can’t fraternize with people who have cases before you, there can’t be any implicit bias. I don’t even like going to Lowe’s because invariably I’ll see someone who wants to talk about a case. Or church, someone always is walking up saying, ‘My nephew is going to be in your court next week and…’,” the judge explained.
“You are under a microscope,” he continued, running through politics, social issues and a laundry list of other areas where they must be careful.
In his 12 years on the bench, he had two of his rulings partially reversed by the state Court of Appeals. One was his first ruling as a judge and he still shakes his head about it. But he won’t forget an issue that put he and his fellow judges in a national spotlight.
That came when they issued an order banning guns from the courthouses in their district.
A gun rights activist challenged them in court. Judge Colom got much of the attention because she was the senior judge and her name appeared at the top of the original order and the court rulings.
But they all three were equally passionate and shared in the research and writing, particularly Davidson.
“That was a real downer to me, I guess it was a bit of lingering naivety,” he said of the state Supreme Court’s rulings against them, rulings that were tainted by politics as much as logic or the law.
“You are never going to convince me it’s a good idea to have guns in emotional situations like we deal with. I will go to my grave believing it’s not,” he said, suggesting he thinks some members of the Supreme Court, which was sharply divided in 5-4 rulings, might change their mind one day.
While he continues to chew on that issue, he’s enjoying making the final rounds, seeing clerks and lawyers.
“They are friends. I hope they will remain friends,” he concluded.