Judge Kristi Davis was sworn in today as Tennessee’s newest member of the Court of Appeals. She was appointed to the Court by Governor Bill Lee just over 60 days ago.
Judge Davis, who has been a circuit court judge in the Sixth Judicial District in Knoxville since 2014, is the second female judge to serve on the Court of Appeals from the Eastern Division and the sixth woman to serve on the Court of Appeals. She fills the vacancy left by the retirement of the Honorable Charles D. Susano Jr. in April 2020. Prior to her judicial career, she was a partner at the firm of Hodges, Doughty & Carson in Knoxville, where she practiced for 14 years. She is a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law.
“We are excited to have Judge Davis join the Court of Appeals,” Chief Judge D. Michael Swiney said. “We are fortunate that her experience will enable her to hit the ground running, which is an important benefit to the people of Tennessee and the Court of Appeals. We look forward to August 3 finally getting here.”
An unconventional path to the appellate court
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Judge Davis’ journey to a seat on a state appellate court has been a bit different than usual. Customarily, after an extensive application and interview process, the governor appoints an appellate judge and the General Assembly has 60 days to confirm or reject that appointment.
This confirmation was complicated by the fact that the General Assembly was in recess for over two months this spring because of Covid-19. Once the legislature returned, a vote to confirm Judge Davis would have required her to appear on the August ballot. The ballots had already been mailed, however, and it would have cost $700,000 to send out additional ballots with just her name on them. In light of those costs, state legislators chose a different path. Under state law, if the General Assembly “fails to reject the governor's appointee within sixty (60) consecutive calendar days, then the appointee shall be deemed confirmed as of the following calendar day” (Tenn. Code Ann. § 17-4-103 (West)).
State Senator Mike Bell, the chairman of the Tennessee State Senate Judiciary Committee, explained the decision.
“After talking about it and realizing that especially in these times of crunched budgets $700,000 is not an insignificant amount of money,” he said at a June 9 hearing. “What we decided to do would be to allow the nominee to be confirmed basically by default by us not acting.”
That June 9 hearing of the State Senate Judiciary Committee was held to introduce Judge Davis to members and to allow them to ask questions of her via video. She was introduced at the hearing by Deputy to the Governor and Chief Counsel Lang Wiseman, who pointed out that this most recent group of nominees to the Court of Appeals had been exceptionally strong. He explained why Judge Davis rose to the top of the esteemed field.
“It was a host of things ranging from her professional reputation and standing to the level of support she received not only from her fellow judges and those that practice in front of her, but also from members of the legislature who spoke favorably about Judge Davis,” he said. Wiseman went on to highlight Davis’ body of work as a judge, and also pointed out that “she was uniquely able to articulate the type of judicial philosophy and worldview that is important to the governor and frankly to all of us who value judges who are not there to make the law but to interpret the law.”
Judge Davis agreed with that assessment of her judicial philosophy during the hearing.
“I feel very strongly that our job as judges is simply to interpret the law that is made,” she said. “We are not to be activists. It is not our job to impose our policy [preferences] in the cases we decide, that’s the job of the legislature. I’ve told people that if I was interested in making law, this is not the job I would be in. I would be where you folks are.”
Her statements were greeted warmly by members of the Judicial Committee.
“You hear Judge Davis and you hear the passion, but also the knowledge she has,” said State Senator Jon Lundberg, the 1st Vice Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We have been blessed to have several appointments from this governor. I think folks really see the kind of people he is putting on the bench and the qualifications that are absolutely stellar.”
A Knox County native to the core
Long before she conversed with members of the State Senate Judiciary Committee or even thought about joining one of the state’s highest courts, Judge Davis was a young girl growing up in the rural, northwest Knoxville community of Karns. Her parents both held full-time jobs, instilled in her an appreciation for hard work, and taught her the importance of giving back to the community.
The first inkling of the direction her life would take came at Karns High School, where Judge Davis relished her time on the school’s mock trial team. She helped craft opening statements, examined witnesses, handled objections, and delivered closing arguments.
“I was able to see how trying a case worked from start to finish,” she said. “That’s the first time I ever really thought a career in the legal field was something I was interested in.”
She did not run to the bookstore and start buying law books just yet, though. When she entered the University of Tennessee-Knoxville as an undergraduate, she had her heart set on broadcast journalism.
“Television news was my initial goal,” she said. Increasingly, though, the reality of a life in broadcasting began to sink in to her. She would have to start her career in a small market and then strive to move on to bigger and bigger markets. Although, she enjoyed her broadcasting major, she realized that career was not for her.
So instead Judge Davis went directly to law school at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Aided by an intense love of reading, she thrived there, joining the Tennessee Law Review and the Jerome Prince National Evidence Moot Court Team. The moot court team was so good during her time on it, that they went to a national competition in New York City, where they placed second overall, but first in brief writing. As a law school student, she received the John D. Baugh Award for Excellence in Oral Advocacy, the Gunn, Ogden & Sullivan Award for Excellence in Brief Writing, and the E. Bruce & Mary Evelyn Foster Scholarship.
After law school, a decision loomed. Judge Davis considered joining the JAG Corps, but home beckoned too loudly.
“Apparently, I have a problem with moving from here,” she said happily. “I had the opportunity to go to a different state for undergraduate, and then for law school. I had an opportunity after graduating from law school to go to the JAG Corps. There must be something about Knoxville because I have chosen to remain here though all these transitions.”
Instead of leaving, she stayed and became a clerk for Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joseph M. Tipton. The next two years were formative.
“That experience was invaluable,” she said. “Just in terms of fine-tuning my legal writing skills and analytical skills. You come out of law school and think you know how to write, but having the opportunity to clerk for a judge really gave me an appreciation for how important your choice of words are. We would draft preliminary opinions for him and they would come back with red ink all over them. That was a little scary because I thought I could write, but it was just a matter of learning how to write in that style, in that voice, and understanding that the opinion you are writing, how is it going to be read in the future? Does it need to be read broadly or narrowly? The word choices you use can have an effect on that.”
Following her time as a clerk, Judge Davis joined Hodges, Doughty & Carson in Knoxville, where she specialized in civil litigation and became a partner in 2007. She handled all kinds of cases, “from your standard slip and fall to something as complicated as commercial leases,” as she put it.
At times she wondered if she should focus her efforts on one specific area, but later she was glad she did not.
“Looking back I think that ended up being a good thing for me because I was exposed to so many different areas of the law,” she said. “I think having that broad background was particularly helpful for transitioning to the circuit court.”
In addition to her trial work, Judge Davis also eagerly delved into appellate argument while at Hodges, Doughty & Carson. Altogether, she argued 26 appeals before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
“Most of the people who tend to be litigators don’t enjoy the appellate work it seems because it is more research and writing focused, and people who want to be in the courtroom want to be in the courtroom,” she said. “I really enjoy both of those things. I was lucky that all the folks in my office, if they ended up with something on appeal they would bring it to me. I love it. It is a contained world when you are dealing with an appeal. You have one case with specific issues, and you research those issues, and you write on them. I really enjoyed presenting the oral argument in front of the appellate court. It is a completely different style and skill. The tone is different, the delivery is different, the presentation is different. I was very glad to have the opportunity to do that much appellate work.”
Transition to the bench
While Judge Davis loved being a litigator, when a Circuit Court vacancy opened up in 2012 upon the retirement of Judge Wheeler A. Rosenbalm, she decided to go for it.
“It is not one of those things I had in the back of my mind for a long time,” she said. “It is not like when I was a litigator I was secretly saying to myself ‘I really wish I were a judge.’ I can’t say I never thought about it, but that was the first time the opportunity really presented itself. When the opportunity came up I thought it something I would enjoy.”
Indeed, one of her favorite parts about being an attorney had always been attending motion days in Circuit Court, which were held every other Friday. She loved going and listening to all the motions.
“I loved doing that because I loved listening to the arguments and thinking to myself, ‘if I was in the judge’s position how would I have decided?’” Judge Davis said.
Although she made it to the final three in the judicial selection process for Judge Rosenbalm’s seat in the bench, she was not chosen.
Two years later, Judge Davis decided to try again for a seat on the Sixth Judicial District Circuit Court bench, but this time the state of affairs was different. This time she would have to campaign in a contested election for the seat of retiring Judge Dale Workman.
“Never in a million years did I ever dream I would run in a countywide campaign,” Judge Davis remembered. “That was an experience. It was incredibly time consuming.”
There were constant campaign events on top of her work as a full-time attorney and her role as the mother of two young children.
“It was a very difficult four to five-month period where I was trying to juggle all of it,” she said. “Of course, I knew nothing about political campaigns so I had to learn really quickly the lay of the land in terms of running for a political office. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, but, in the end, it was really rewarding.”
It was rewarding not only for the result—her election to the bench—but also because of all the people she encountered along the way.
“There were so many folks I was able to meet and got to know that I never would have had the chance to had I not run for election,” she said.
On the bench, Judge Davis quickly picked up firsthand experience on the difference between serving as a judge and serving as a litigator.
“I think the primary difference is that obviously you move out of the role of advocate and into the role of decision maker, and that’s a transition, that’s different,” she said. “Decision-making I’ve discovered is a skill, and advocacy is a different skill. Ultimately, you have to be comfortable with knowing that 50 percent of the time somebody is not going to be happy with the result.”
Judge Davis found that some aspects of her career as a litigator were invaluable in her new role as a judge. For instance, she drew value from time spent serving as both a defense attorney and a plaintiff’s attorney.
“It was really important for me to have both of those perspectives and bring that to the table,” she said. “As a decision maker, I think that has been helpful.”
One of her favorite aspects of being a trial judge has been observing and appreciating the best efforts of talented attorneys who appear in her courtroom.
“I just enjoy good advocacy,” Judge Davis said. “Well-done briefs, good researching, good writing, good presentations in oral arguments, those are really enjoyable to me. Of course, it ultimately makes my job harder when you have two really good attorneys on both sides.”
Another favorite part of the job for Judge Davis has been presiding over adoption hearings.
“Those are such joyful moments when you play a small part in bringing a family together and helping to create a home for children,” she said. “I will miss that tremendously.”
Just like her move from attorney to circuit court judge, Judge Davis’ transition from the trial bench to the appellate bench is not one that she always saw coming.
“Once I became a circuit court judge I was in no hurry to move anywhere else,” she said. “When I took the job, I did not view it as a stepping stone to the Court of Appeals. I didn’t look at it that way at all. I have loved this job tremendously. I’m really sad about leaving. I will miss all of the people here. It has been an absolute joy and privilege.”
But the move makes sense for Judge Davis. Another one of the highlights of her job as a trial judge were the times when she “had the opportunity to dig into the harder issues,” she said. “When I had to go research something on my own and write an opinion, I enjoy that process. There is a sense of accomplishment when you finish.”
A position on the Court of Appeals promises many opportunities to do precisely that in the coming years.
“It worked out because I have been a trial judge for six years,” she said. “I feel like I have done a lot and seen enough so that I can take what I learned and use it in the Court of Appeals. Just being able to do those things I enjoy the most on a regular basis—the research and the writing—made me interested” in moving to the appellate level.
Even with the often intense demands of her job, Judge Davis has always taken the time to participate in organizations, both professional and otherwise. She is very active in the Knoxville Bar Association, for instance, and is a member of the association’s executive committee. She also just finished a term on the Tennessee Judicial Conference’s executive committee. In addition, she is involved in the Executive Women’s Association and the University of Tennessee’s Chancellor’s Associates program. She also served as a special judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court Workers’ Compensation Panel and on the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility’s investigative panel.
The bulk of her time not on the bench, though, is spent on family. Judge Davis has two children: Holly, a freshman, and Reid, a senior, at Knoxville Catholic High School. Judge Davis is an avid attendee of their sporting events. Her husband, Chris, is the administrator of elections for Knox County.
Officially, Judge Davis’ last day as a circuit court judge is July 31. While she is sad to say goodbye to that court and the people in it, she is very much looking forward to the future.
“I think that we have been blessed here in Tennessee with a tremendous group of judges on the appellate level,” she said. “l am really honored to be able to be a part of this group of folks. They are hard-working, their opinions are good, and it is just an honor to be a part of the legal field in this way.”