Leonard Davis, chief judge of the Eastern District of Texas, who presides over one of the busiest patent law venues in the United States, sent a letter to the White House on June 16 announcing that he will retire from the bench next year.
Davis’ letter comes with a strong warning to Washington: Congress needs to get moving on appointing his replacement—and others’—before he leaves the bench on May 15, 2015, or the Eastern District will be in serious trouble.
Davis is the fourth Eastern District trial court judge to announce his retirement or intention to take senior status in as many years. U.S. District Judge Richard Schell of the Sherman Division will take senior status in March 2015. U.S. District Judge David Folsom of the Texarkana Division retired from the bench in 2012, and U.S. District Judge T. John Ward of the Marshall Division retired from the bench in 2011.
“With my retirement in May 2015 and Judge Richard Schell’s in March 2015, the Eastern District could have four of eight judgeships vacant by this time next year,” Davis wrote in his retirement letter. “This would make it very difficult for the remaining four Eastern District judges to do the work of eight and continue to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities to the citizens of East Texas.”
In an exclusive interview with Texas Lawyer, Davis said the judicial vacancies in his district were the biggest issue he faced when making his decision to leave the bench. His district has one of the highest-weighted caseloads for federal trial court judges in the nation.
“I have great concern that these vacancies get filed and get filled quickly. We have one that has been vacant for seven years. And when you have a robust docket of criminal and civil cases and four of six positions are not filled—if I had one hesitancy on doing this, it was that fact,” Davis said. “It could put a burden on my colleagues.”
Then-President George W. Bush appointed Davis to the bench in 2002. Davis was well-known for his innovations with the Eastern District’s local patent rules to help make litigation move more quickly and be more economical for litigants. He said he thought long and hard about staying on the bench as a senior-status judge, but he decided against that route.
“For me, I’m still young and healthy enough, I’m ready for something different,” said Davis. “The patent docket is great. It’s interesting. But you handle a … couple hundred Markman hearings, and it becomes the same old, same old. I’m looking at a career in mediation and consulting on some cases.”
Davis says he plans to remain in the Tyler area and is not sure how he’ll arrange his return to private practice.
“I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’m just going to play it by ear and see what the options are,” Davis said. “I’ve been busy trying to decide whether or not to do it. And I’ll spend the next year figuring out how to do it.”