Game plan-- District court administrator sharpens his strategic focus

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

J. Otis Davis has rubbed elbows with such basketball legends as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Julius Erving, three of the greatest players in the history of the NBA.

While Davis once harbored NBA dreams as an All-State forward for Lansing Sexton High School in the early '60s, it has been in a different kind of court where his career has unfolded.

Today, at age 65, Davis appears as lean and fit as in his basketball playing days with the Big Reds. Perhaps his conditioning level can be attributed to the need for keeping pace with a caseload that dwarfs other district court operations around the state. As court administrator for the 36th District Court in Detroit for the past 12 years, Davis has been assigned the monumental task of managing a docket that runs to the tune of 500,000 cases a year. And as such, along with other court administrators across the state, Davis has been asked to do more with less as the city and state grapple with budget problems that are approaching epic proportions.

"It is a fact of life that we will continue to need to find ways to become more efficient in our operations," says Davis, who earned a master's degree in social work administration, with honors, from Michigan State University in 1974. "The budget challenges figure to become greater in the years ahead."

A $50,000 grant from the State Justice Institute will be used to help out. The money, which was awarded in late December, will fund phase two of a comprehensive strategic plan for the 36th District Court headquartered on Madison Avenue in downtown Detroit. The court has hired development consultant Brenda Wagenknecht-Ivey, of PRAXIS Consulting in Denver, to coordinate the project. Wagenknecht-Ivey holds a Ph.D. from the University of Denver, a master's degree from MSU, and a bachelor's from Western Michigan University. She helped coordinate phase one of the court's strategic plan more than a decade ago, according to Davis.

"She was the logical choice to help us with phase two since she was involved in the initial phase of our strategic plan," Davis says. "She has developed a national reputation and is an expert in organizational development and quality improvement."

Key 36th District Court officials, including Davis and Chief Judge Marylin Atkins, met with Dr. Wagenknecht-Ivey last month to begin the planning process in earnest. They expect to present formal findings by year-end, according to Davis.

"When I came on board here in November 1998, we had an altogether different fiscal situation then we are facing now," Davis explains. "At that time there was a lot more money to go around. We weren't dealing with the kind of budget crisis that the state, the county, and cities across Michigan are in now. The loss of auto-related jobs and the depressed real estate market have made it really tough on everyone."

The court's staffing level has dropped from nearly 490 full time equivalents in the mid-'90s to some 420 FTEs today, according to Davis.

"We have approximately 70 vacancies that can't be filled because of the budget situation," he says. "As people have left or have retired, we have not filled those positions in order to keep our budget balanced."

When Davis joined the court, there were two deputy directors employed to assist the top administrator. Following retirements, those two positions have been eliminated and an administrative assistant handles many of those responsibilities instead.

The 36th District Court operates on an annual budget of approximately $53 million, nearly $20 million of which is supplied through the payment of fines and fees. The balance comes principally from the cash-strapped city.

"Some 6,000 to 8,000 people make their way through our doors each day," says Davis. "Needless to say, it is a busy place that requires everyone to be operating at peak efficiency to handle that kind of workload. We are billed as 'The People's Court,' and that is a very appropriate description considering the volume of cases that we handle."

While many of the cases are of a routine nature, the court also has been the site of more than its share of high-profile matters, including the media circus that surrounded the arrest and arraignment of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick two years ago.

"That, by far, was the case that attracted the most public attention," Davis says. "There were camera crews everywhere it seemed. We had to ramp up security because of all the media interest in that case. Everything else took a backseat while that case was going on."

The oldest of seven children, Davis grew up in Lansing, where his late father, Manuel, was a factory worker. His mother, Frankie, still lives in the state capital.

"My Dad got a job for me in the factory one summer and it taught me that I didn't want to do that for a living the rest of my life," Davis recalls with a smile. "It was a real grind."

Instead, Davis took his academic and athletic talents to Western Michigan, where he earned a scholarship as a wide receiver on the Bronco football team. His pass-catching ability caught the eye of recruiters while he was a two-sport star at Lansing Sexton, where he averaged 19 points per game as a senior standout on the basketball team. A shoulder injury, however, brought a premature end to his gridiron career at WMU, leaving Davis time to concentrate fully on his classroom work.

"I was the first one in our family to get a college degree," he says. "It was important that I set a good academic example for my brothers and sister."

While in college, Davis received his first taste of life working in the state Department of Social Services, serving as a boys' supervisor at a halfway house for juvenile delinquents.

"I was in charge of 12 boys at this halfway house in Kalamazoo," Davis says. "It was supposed to be lights out at 10 p.m. each day, but it never quite worked out that way with them. It was a good experience that prepared me for what was to come."

From 1968-72, Davis worked as a juvenile caseworker and then as a senior casework supervisor for the Ingham County Probate Court, a stepping-stone to a job as a summer youth employment coordinator for the Lansing School District, a post he held for two years.

He then returned to the Department of Social Services, eventually becoming director of the Foster Care Review Program, developing all policies, procedures, and budgets during his three years in charge. From 1984-87, Davis was the lead court analyst for the State Court Administrative Office of the Michigan Supreme Court, a post that would lead to his appointment as director of the Michigan Juvenile Justice System in 1987.

"For more than 10 years with the Juvenile Justice System, I was responsible for a staff of over 1,000 employees and a budget of $100 million," Davis says. "It was a huge operation, involving training schools, halfway houses, detention facilities, and support services across the state."

It was during his time in Lansing that Davis became involved in running a series of summer basketball camps coordinated by Dr. Charles Tucker, a longtime confidant of Magic Johnson and a host of other MSU basketball stars.

"It's been an enriching experience to work with the youth of the area and the state, helping them develop their basketball skills while also learning the importance of teamwork, discipline, and dedication," Davis says.

"It's also been an opportunity for me to get to know some of the greatest basketball players of all time, many of whom have been associated with Dr. Tucker's camps. It's been a privilege."

Published: Wed, Apr 21, 2010