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Legally Speaking


Issue: June, 2008
Author: Mary Angell

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A New Fish in Judicial Waters

Wyoming lawyers would benefit from trying more cases.

So says Michael K. Davis, an experienced trial lawyer and the new District Judge in the First Judicial District in Laramie County. Not that he wants an overloaded docket, of course.

“It would not be good for the system if every case were tried,” he told the Wyoming Lawyer. “Mitigation saves time and money. I just hope lawyers are not afraid to get on a trial case. It’s healthy to have more trials.”

Davis was recently appointed to replace Judge Nicholas Kalokathis, who retired earlier this year.

“I think he’ll be a great judge,” said Tom Toner, partner of the Sheridan firm Yonkee & Toner, LLP, said of Davis. “He’s been an outstanding trial lawyer for years and years. We hate to lose him from our firm, but he’ll be a great asset to the First Judicial District.”

Davis has not always aspired to be a judge.

“It was not something I was chomping at the bit to do when I got my law degree,” he said. “But I figured I had gathered a lot of experience and I felt I would be useful as a judge. I felt I could do all of it.”

“On the one side, I’ve always felt it’s a good thing for a person to do some public service,” he continued. “On the other, it’s a good growth thing for me to broaden back out from the specialized things I did as a lawyer to being a generalist.”

Davis’ first jobs out of high school did not point to a legal career. He worked setting up big machinery at a refinery, helped his father work on compression engines and operated a press for a carpet company. The press stamped out squares of carpet, and his job was to hit the button to stop it when it ran out of carpet.

“I was doing this all day long,” he said, making a button-pushing motion.

Before going to law school, Davis also served three years with the U.S. Army stationed in Italy, where he learned to speak Italian fluidly enough to pass a linguist exam.

As a U.W. law student, he worked as a paralegal for U.S. Attorney Charles E. Graves.

“I was doing briefings and jury instructions,” Davis said. “I got to spend quite a bit of time in court watching lawyers work. It was a great experience.”

Davis graduated with honors from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1980 and immediately joined Redle, Yonkee & Arney. “From the start, he took on challenging cases,” Toner said.

“He started handling very high-risk, high-dollar cases when he was about three years out of law school here,” he said, recalling one of Davis’ first jury trials worth several million dollars to the client, which Davis won.

He acquired a wide variety of legal experience at Yonkee & Toner.

“The Sheridan firm looked like a doctor’s office – people all over the place, there for all kinds of things: wills, adoptions, DUIs,” he said.

Davis gained experience with most areas of law that come before the district court, including criminal cases, but drifted toward civil litigation involving medical malpractice, insurance fraud and civil rights. Over the years, he spent a great deal of time in Cheyenne handling appeals before both the Wyoming Supreme Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I particularly enjoyed federal practice and federal judges,” he said.

In 2007, he opened a Cheyenne branch office for Yonkee & Toner.

Now, as a judge, Davis tries to keep in mind what he’s learned from the judges who have presided over his many court cases.

“I tried a number of cases with U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer,” he said. “He taught me more about lawyering—in terms of the handling of evidence and the conduct of the courtroom—than any other single judge that I had occasion to appear before. He gave me great solid foundation as a young lawyer. I still try to think of Judge Brimmer’s handling of evidentiary issues and so forth.”

“Courtroom conduct in Wyoming is nothing like what people see on television,” Davis said. “Judges and lawyers treat each other with respect.”

“A lot of that is attributable to the caliber of judges and lawyers in Wyoming and a small bar,” he said. “People tend to treat each other better because they know each other better.”

Wyoming lawyers are also fortunate for a greater number of opportunities to take a case to trial than in other states, he said.

“The American College of Trial Lawyers’ invitation is only open to trial lawyers all across the spectrum. One of the things they know is it’s harder and harder to find people who have tried enough cases to meet their criteria,” he said. “I think we’re fortunate in Wyoming that we’re going to court here. In a New York law firm, many associates spend 15 years as an attorney before they get to try a case in court.”

In his spare time, Davis likes to run and lift weights. A self-proclaimed “white water freak,” he enjoys taking river trips in his inflatable kayak, as well as backpacking and cross country skiing. His wife, Jan, shares his love of wilderness trips as well as his interest in music.

“She’d probably kill me for telling you this, but she plays some blues harp,” said Davis, whose instrument is guitar.

“I play bluegrass,” he said. “I play a lot of kinds of music--not all that well, really.”

He owns a Fender Mustang that belonged to his father and a Taylor 414, but it’s a Fender acoustic that he takes down the river with him.

“So far, it’s come through unscathed,” he said.

He hopes to navigate the rough waters of judicial service with equal success.

“I just hope to make the right decisions every time—show up, work hard, and make good decisions,” Davis said. “At the end of my tenure as a judge, I hope people say, ‘He worked hard and did a really good job of resolving issues properly.’ That’s all you can ask for.”

Davis has been an active member of the Wyoming State Bar, serving on both the Wyoming Peer Review Panel and for six years, the Wyoming Board of Professional Responsibility, including one year as its chairman. He is also a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and its Federal Rules of Evidence Committee as well as a member of the Sheridan County Bar Association and the Laramie County Bar Association.

Mary Angell is a freelance writer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a regular contributor to the Wyoming Lawyer.

Copyright © 2008 – Wyoming State Bar