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Judge Mark Davidson stumbled upon an overlooked injustice six years ago in the course of his regular attempt to devour Texas history. Harris County officials in 1938 honored 15 judges who had served at the county courthouse by putting up portraits of them. The problem was, one was missing. Davidson, who sits on the 11th District bench in Houston, noticed that a picture of Judge Henry Dannenbaum, who served on the 61st District bench from 1915 until 1920, was not memorialized with his peers. After more research, Davidson says he discovered that the man responsible for arranging the portraits allegedly was a former Ku Klux Klan officer. Davidson believes that Dannenbaum’s portrait might have been excluded because he was Jewish. Davidson sought to right the wrong, and in May 1997 he arranged for Dannenbaum’s portrait to hang on a courthouse wall. Vinson & Elkins’ partner Glen Rosenbaum of Houston, whose grandmother was Dannenbaum’s cousin, says, “Judge Davidson is a hero to a lot of people in our family. He took the time and effort to find out how he could do the right thing. No one in the family had consciously known about it [Dannenbaum's exclusion].” About 80 to 100 family members and friends attended the portrait-hanging ceremony. “To me, this building is about nothing if not correcting injustice,” Davidson says. “I just wanted to rectify the injustice that took place here more than 60 years ago.” Davidson’s quest to learn the history of the system in which he serves began when he decided to run for office in 1988. He began rooting around the documents stored on the Harris County Civil Courts Building’s fourth floor. The story of how Texas evolved came to life in a unique form — through suits filed by and against the state’s founding fathers, such as Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Mirabeau Lamar among others. “I always loved history, and I knew this was an old court,” Davidson says of the 1910 building where he works. “I began to do some casual research, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. No one has done substantial research or writing on state or county judiciary. I’ve enjoyed absorbing it all.” Davidson has written 16 articles for various law journals and history publications since he was elected to the bench. He is in the process of writing a chapter for a book chronicling the history of the Texas Supreme Court. “This is a cradle of the state’s history,” Davidson says of the courthouse. He notes that the records there and elsewhere spell out the process it took to build Houston’s ship channel, the Astrodome and the new arena that will be home to the Houston Rockets basketball team. Kent Rutter, a Houston appellate attorney, has co-authored and helped research many of Davidson’s history articles. While he has never argued in Davidson’s court, Rutter says he believes Davidson’s understanding of the court’s history gives him an insight few other judges have. “Court decisions are based on precedent, and you have to understand the historical context to understand and interpret that precedent,” says Rutter, an associate with Haynes and Boone. “Understanding the history gives him a perspective on the bench and awareness and trust our society places on judges. His work has inspired a lot of trust and confidence in him.” Davidson’s colleagues responded to his professional ability in December 2001 by electing him Harris County administrative judge. Selected by the 58 district judges of Harris County, Davidson is in charge of the overall administration of the district courts and is a liaison with other branches of state and county government. “I love my job, and I love civil court,” Davidson says. “It’s never the same ol’, same ol’. Unlike criminal law, the breadth of law on the civil side is very diverse. You’re not applying one set of laws. You have to be the master of all civil law.” Davidson, 50, was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Houston. He and his wife Sarah Duckers — a Houston solo — have two sons, ages 4 and 2. Davidson’s father was a patent attorney and worked for various energy giants in New Jersey before taking a job in Texas and relocating the family in 1955. But Davidson says it was his godfather, a trial lawyer, who inspired him to be a trial lawyer. “I think I watched too much ‘Perry Mason,’ ” Davidson says. “ I believed that if a lawyer wasn’t in the courtroom, he wasn’t doing what a lawyer is supposed to do. All I wanted was to be a litigator.” While attending the University of Texas School of Law in 1976 and 1977, he worked in Austin as an administrative assistant for then-state Sen. Jack Ogg, D-Houston. He transferred to the University of Houston Law Center. After graduating in 1978, Davidson worked as an associate with Sowell & Ogg in Houston. In December 1982, he left to work as staff counsel for then-state Rep. Ashley Smith, R-Houston. Davidson ventured out on his own with a general practice involving civil, family, probate and some criminal-defense matters until he was elected to the bench. Ogg has known Davidson since Davidson was 18. Today, Ogg is a partner in Ogg & Associates, where he’s a civil litigator in Houston and has appeared before Davidson on several occasions. “I sometimes worry when I appear before someone who is a friend because they sometimes seem like they have to bend over backward to prove they’re not playing favorites,” Ogg says. “Mark has a very good reputation, and he’s done a fine job on the bench. We’ve clashed from time to time, but it’s no different than with any other judge.” Smith did not return phone calls seeking comment before presstime on July 24. EARLY START Six lawyers who have appeared before Davidson say he is fair, knowledgeable and entertaining. “He’s a joy to be in front of,” says Tommy Fibich, a partner in Houston’s Fibich, Hampton, Leebron & Garth. “He runs the court firmly but brings a certain levity.” Davidson does not require attorneys to stand each time they address him if juries are not present. “If I don’t already have the respect of attorneys, standing won’t give it to me,” he says. The judge says he’s a stickler for making sure lawyers are in court on time. And unlike some judges, whose day begins at 9 a.m., Davidson likes to start at 8 a.m. He says he averages 30 pretrial motions a week. The early start gives him five full days of trial time, and the ability to read and absorb any material necessary, Davidson says. He does, however, allow attorneys who have cases on the docket slated for 8 a.m. to appear by phone if necessary. “We live in an era of cell phones, so there is no reason why an attorney can’t at least call in on time,” Davidson says. “In fact, they can just roll over in bed and call the court, if necessary.” He adds that if the same rules applied to him when he was a litigator, he frequently would have taken advantage of the phone option. Tony Nelson, a partner in Austin’s Thomas, Hudson & Nelson, recently made a trip to Houston for a hearing on his client’s motion for summary judgment even though Davidson’s clerk told Nelson he could call in. “I decided to appear in person because of the nature of the proceedings and because I had no experience before him,” he says. “He was on top of the file, recalled everything that led to why we were there that day. If I would have known how well prepared he was, I would have done it by phone.” Davidson’s lighter side shines in a CLE presentation he offers on his courtroom rules. Titled “The Rockin’ Rules of the 11th District Court,” it’s his own top 40 countdown of courtroom procedures using music titles and lyrics to educate attorneys. For example, he calls Rule No. 1 “The Jagger Doctrine of Discovery.” It is explained through the Rolling Stones’ lyrics to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” “Any discovery request that asks for more than what you need will be presumed to be asked solely for purposes of harassment,” the explanation reads. Rule No. 6, based on Poison’s rock ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” explains the “thorns of victory.” The rule states that an attorney must prepare an order reflecting the victory he or she just won and must have the judge sign it. Davidson will not sign an order sent to him by messenger; the winning attorney must deliver it. “Judges do best when they take their jobs seriously but not themselves,” Davidson says. “When I get to the point where I think that the case before me is just another $5,000 or $10,000 case, I know it’s time to quit. Someone in those cases thought enough of them that they filed it, wanted it tried and appeared in court. Everyone deserves equal dignity and respect.” Adds Davidson, “The appeal of this job is that I leave the courthouse virtually every day with the belief that I made the world a little more just. I loved litigation when I practiced law, and being a judge puts me in the courtroom every day. I find the job intellectually stimulating and, frankly, fun.”
Do’s and Don’ts DO be on time. Remember the Everly Brothers’ tune, “Wake Up Little Susie.” DON’T ask for something you are not absolutely, positively certain you want. DO remember that — no matter how much you may disagree with your adversary — grunts, groans, rolling eyes and chuckles are not effective advocacy tools. DO treat the court’s staff with respect. DO dress appropriately. Source: Four lawyers who have appeared before Judge Mark Davidson.

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