The job of chief judge is largely administrative. The frequent joke is that being chief of the federal bench is like being in charge of a cemetery: there are a lot of people under you, but you're not sure anyone is listening.
That's due in large part to the independent nature of judges in general, and federal judges, who have lifetime appointments, may be the most independent of the lot.
So why would Judge Michael Davis want to take on this role of managing a court with no pay increase, a burgeoning caseload and too few judges?
"It turns out that it's my time. It's based on seniority, and I'm the most senior judge to be able to take this position. Certainly I could turn it down, but I think it's a privilege, an obligation for me to be chief judge for this judicial district," said Davis.
Davis's transition to chief also makes history. He is the first African-American to serve as chief of Minnesota's federal courts.
"There's no doubt about it that I'm proud to be African-American, but I'm also a United States District Court judge, just like my fellow colleagues whether or not they're female or male," Davis said. "And I'm humbled to represent the minority communities in this position."
Davis was appointed by President Bill Clinton, but he credits the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.
Davis has a reputation as a tough-minded judge with a soft-spoken voice who doesn't shy away from complex issues. In 1999, then U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Davis to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or FISA court for a seven-year term. The judges on that court view the most highly classified material the government has to offer. The court requires intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and FBI, get warrants before monitoring phone conversations or emails between Americans and foreigners.
Davis has presided over some high-profile cases, including that of Baycol, a cholesterol-lowering drug the company withdrew from the market after it was linked with at least 100 deaths. He also presided over Capitol Records' copyright infringement cases against Internet downloaders.
He says he'll push for more judges to Minnesota's federal bench, and he says he has other ideas for projects as chief, but he won't reveal them until he can meet with his colleagues.
For now, he encourages the public to stop in and watch the federal cases in action. He says too many people don't, because the federal courthouse can look intimidating.
"Many people ask me, 'Can I come down to the courthouse and watch?' and I just want to make sure the public understands that the courthouse is their courthouse. They're free to come down and watch the judges in action, the lawyers in action, trials or the hearings. The courtrooms are open," explained Davis.
Davis will serve as chief of Minnesota's federal bench for the next seven years.