A CLERK’S LIFE – THE ORAL HISTORY OF JAMES DAVEY
By William F. Marmon
Based on James F. Davey’s Oral History for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
Outside the legal world, the word “clerk” is not usually associated with power and influence. However, the Chief “Clerk” of Court in United States federal courts is quite a different matter. And the oral history of Jim Davey, Clerk of the District of Columbia District Court for 20 years, is a testament to the importance of the position.
Davey’s oral history was taken in 2008 by Steve Hollman when Davey was 73 years old. The history runs for 144 pages and describes important court reform and modernization, midwifed by Davey. It also provides the view from the Clerk’s office of big cases during Davey’s time: Watergate, Oliver North, Pentagon Papers, and John Hinckley. The history includes candid – and sometimes salty – assessments of the judges Davey worked with, as well as details of Davey’s interesting life before and after his Clerk service.
Davey was born on Parris Island, South Carolina, where his father was a Navy officer. In December 1941 when Davey was six years old, his father was stationed in Pearl Harbor quarters “two battleship lengths” from the battleship Arizona when the Japanese attacked – an event that Davey remembers in remarkable detail.
After getting a degree in accounting from the University of Rhode Island and a law degree (at night) from Georgetown, Davey joined a small group in 1968 that conducted a management review of the DC court system, requested by the Senate Judiciary Committee and funded by the Ford Foundation. (At the time, both federal and local D.C. courts had lengthy backlogs.) After the study was completed in 1969, Davey was hired by the District Court as Deputy Chief Clerk and was then promoted to Chief Clerk of Court in 1970.
Davey provides an insider view of the Court. “Every judge is a center of power, and then you have their secretaries who are also centers of power.” He continues: “So you’d best be aware that in a court of 15 judges there’s about 30 different people – 15 judges and 15 secretaries – that all think they are number one.” The Clerk serves at pleasure of the Court, he notes, “and so my objective was to keep at least eight of them [judges] happy at all times.” And he adds with a presumed smile, “If I had more than eight unhappy, then I’d try to keep them out of the same room.”
But big changes were accomplished during Davey’s time. Large efficiencies were created by converting civil cases to the “individual case” calendar system under which all aspects of a case – motions, discovery issues, settlement and trial – are handled by the same judge. Davey explained that previously “eight or nine” different judges could be associated with a single case because the judges were deployed to handle functions – i.e., motions, jury selection and trial, non-jury trials – on a rotating basis.
Another big efficiency Davey managed to accomplish was in the way prospective jurors were managed. Previously, in order to guarantee sufficient jurors for every scheduled trial, many more potential jurors were called than were actually used because of late-breaking settlements and pleas. Davey was able to get a majority of judges to agree that fewer would be called, even if it meant a jury trial had to wait a day because of insufficient jurors.
The history is packed with insider vignettes. For example, on the day that former Judge Gerhard Gesell transitioned to Senior Status, he called Davey and said: “Jim I want to come down and thank the Clerk’s office. Where the hell is it?” Says Davey: “Can you believe that? He had been in the Court for 20 years or more . . . and never had been down to the Clerk’s office.”
And during the Watergate trial, in the middle of James Neal’s closing prosecution argument, the temperature in Judge Sirica’s courtroom became unbearably hot. Davey, on Sirica’s instruction, left the courtroom and ordered the GSA to cool the courtroom down. The result however was “this terrible banging and you could hardly hear. It was the damn GSA up above the courtroom trying to get some vents open.”
Davey was candid about the age discrimination suit that was brought against him by a female employee who felt unjustly passed over when Davey named a younger woman to the position of deputy clerk. The case was dismissed in District Court but appealed and again dismissed with a further appeal to the Supreme Court, where certiorari was denied.
Also included in the history are Davey’s activities after he retired at age 55 from the Court. He resettled to Rhode Island, became active in politics, and successfully ran as an anti-union reformer for one term in the Rhode Island House of Representatives as a Republican. He subsequently moved to Cary, North Carolina, where he lives today.