Andre M. Davis started kindergarten at an all-black public school in Baltimore in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court held that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal. Years later, in an undergraduate law class, that landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling helped inspire a legal career that took Davis to the federal bench.
Now, Davis could cross one of the nation's remaining racial hurdles. Nominated last week by President Clinton to fill a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Davis would be the first African-American judge to sit on the court, if the Senate confirms his appointment.
His nomination faces an uncertain future, coming just before the presidential election and at the end of the congressional calendar. But legal observers call Davis, a Clinton-appointed federal District Court judge since 1995, an ideal candidate.
University of Maryland law professor Douglas L. Colbert said Davis "personifies all that a judge should - high intellect, compassion, fairness."
Davis, 51, said in an interview this week that he has simply tried to treat people with respect during his 13 years on the bench, beginning in Baltimore City's District Court, where the maze of small claims and traffic violations might be many people's only encounter with the legal system.
"I want the loser - and I know there's always going to be a loser, that's the nature of the beast - but I want the loser to be able to say, `I lost, but I was heard, and I believe that judge gave me every consideration in hearing my side,' " Davis said.
He declined to talk in detail about his nomination to the 4th Circuit, saying only: "I'm honored. It's a real honor."
The Richmond-based court hears appeals of federal cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and is one step below the Supreme Court. It has the largest African-American population of any federal circuit, with about 23 percent black residents.
Davis' nomination is complicated by its timing. The Senate is scheduled to recess for the year this week, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) has no plans to hold confirmation hearings before then.
That leaves Davis' appointment hinging on the presidential race. If Democrat Al Gore wins the White House, he will likely renew President Clinton's judicial nominees. But if Republican George W. Bush is elected, his Republican administration is expected to name its own appointees.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, an associate law professor at the University of Maryland, urged the Senate to take action on the nomination before the election. "Where you have a candidate like Andre Davis, who I think has an unassailable record in this community as a lawyer and a judge ... one wonders, what would be the holdup?" Ifill said.
Growing up in East Baltimore, in the shadows of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Davis said he never imagined becoming a lawyer, much less a federal judge. His father was a schoolteacher, his stepfather a steelworker and his mother worked in food services. Davis started out as something of a capitalist, juggling a massive newspaper delivery route in 1963 for the now-closed News-American.
The oldest of three children, Davis was considered the family storyteller, and he considered becoming a novelist. He also was a sharp student who, without prompting from his parents or teachers, successfully applied for a scholarship to attend high school at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
He went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in American history and planned for a career as a college professor. But that changed when he took an undergraduate course in constitutional law, learned about history-making cases like Brown vs. Board of Education, and decided to go to law school.
"It sounds hokey, but really, to make the world a better place - that's why I went," Davis said.
Davis got his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1978, after working as a manager in the city housing authority. After law school, he clerked for U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman in Baltimore and for Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr., whose death Aug. 31 created the 4th Circuit vacancy to which Davis has been named.
As a judge, Davis said his greatest joy comes from working with juries. His toughest decisions, he said, have involved cases in state court where social workers have asked him to terminate the rights of abusive or neglectful parents.
Among his more prominent decisions as a federal judge, Davis last winter struck down a Baltimore law requiring that 20 percent of the city's public work contracts go to minority companies. Affirmative action laws frequently are vulnerable to constitutional challenges, and in this case Davis ruled that the Baltimore law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.