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Past gives Davis acceptance behind prison walls

James Davis III is an open book.

Ask him anything, and he will tell you.

"The inmates know who I am and what I'm about," he said. 

To Davis, a deputy ombudsman since 1996, it's about transparency.

That book — the rich life he has led — is worth the reading, said ombudsman Marshall Lux, who recently retired.

"The story is that he's doing things that nobody else is doing, or could do, in our state," Lux explained.

If you've ever seen the movie, "A Few Good Men," you'll remember the oft-quoted speech by Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, in which he told a courtroom, "Deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall."

Davis spends a lot of his time not on the wall but behind the walls of the state penitentiary, Lincoln Community Corrections, the Tecumseh prison, the York women's prison and other state lockups.

Wherever he's needed, whatever the problem, he’s walking through prison doors and interviewing inmates and corrections officers and wardens, and then administrators, to offer solutions when he can.

That's where he's comfortable. Not sitting in this large conference room in the ombudsman's office, telling his story. 

“I usually don’t give interviews; (it’s) not like people are knocking down my door asking for interviews,” Davis said.

But Lux asked him to do this. His relationship with his now-former boss is a mutual admiration society. Lux took off his rough edges, Davis says, and gave him a different perspective.

Lux counters: Davis came fully equipped to do the job as he does it.

And one of the things Lux is proudest of, as he reflects on his many years in the office, “is working with James and empowering him to do the good work that he does.”

*  *  *

Every wall in James Davis III’s office in the Centre Terrace building is a tribute to African-American icons.

Frederick Douglass, a slave who became a free man and one of the first black Americans to become a diplomat.

Harriet Tubman, a strong black woman who overcame adversity, and who he looks to for inspiration.

Muhammed Ali, a fighter not only in the ring but out of it, who reminds him to never give up.

Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.

The weighty part of the 58-year-old Davis' story, the richness, is framed by his growing-up years in Washington, D.C.’s predominantly black southeast projects and in his North Carolina summers.

When he was days from turning 3 years old, people marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, and King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

When he was 4, the D.C. adults in his life were allowed to vote for U.S. president for the first time. And when he was 5, anti-Vietnam marches erupted.

In 1968, when Davis turned 8, the D.C. schools began busing kids from the projects, and young Davis ended up in a predominantly white school, John Eaton Elementary in Georgetown, two minutes from the Washington National Cathedral.

At the time, the nation’s capital had segregated housing, and poor public schools in the inner city, with 92 percent African-American students.

After the assassination of King that year, the D.C. communities erupted in riots for four days. Martial law was declared and the National Guard occupied the district, with heavy artillery moving through the streets. Relationships with police were strained.

With the civil rights movement at its apex, Davis said, his childhood was chaotic.

He and his brother, Yancy, lived with their mother Elaine Alexander and grandmother Mary Alexander. His dad, James Davis Jr., also lived in the district.

During summer vacations, he spent time in North Carolina with his paternal grandmother, great-grandmother and cousins. They lived in a house with indoor plumbing and no running water.

It was a Deep South kind of life.

"There were certain people I couldn't talk to, certain places I couldn't go," he said. "And we would always have to walk in a group so we wouldn't stray off and something would happen to us."

It was his family that shaped him, Davis said, family that took the time to teach him about right and wrong, how to show respect for elders.

From his maternal grandmother Mary, who was both African-American and Native American, he learned perseverance, integrity, respect and to always work at sharpening his skills.

"She was a fiery person. She didn't take any crap," he said.

In 1979, Davis graduated from D.C.’s McKinley Technology High School. His Nebraska life took form when he came to Lincoln that year, via Husker football, to play for Frank Solich on the freshman team.

*  *  *

After leaving college, Davis worked a variety of jobs, then started in 1986 with the Lancaster County Jail as a corrections officer. After a couple of years he moved to the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office as a court officer, transporting inmates.

It was shortly after that, in 1990, when he was 29, that life-as-he-knew-it took a strange turn. He was accused of a crime he didn’t commit and thrown into county jail for 10 days.

"It's not like a year, or two years, in segregation. But I do know how it feels to be isolated," Davis said.

Investigators collected his DNA, and a public defender tried to get him to plead to a lesser charge. He wouldn't do it, he said. He didn't commit the crime.

The DNA testing, believed to be the first time it was used in a Lancaster County court case, cleared him and another man, a University of Colorado football player, of the crime with which they were charged. The case was dismissed.

After the charges were dropped, Davis filed a lawsuit against Lancaster County and the city of Lincoln, saying he was arrested even though no evidence implicated him in the crime. It humiliated and disgraced him, damaged his reputation, credit and community standing, and caused him to lose his job.

The civil suits were dismissed, the judge saying that under Nebraska law the city and county had immunity from false arrest and false imprisonment.

Walking through the process of false accusation as he did, he said, gave him more understanding of people who end up in prison without the advantage of a good attorney.

*  *  *

After the experience, his reputation in tatters, Davis sought a way to repair his good name.

Sen. Ernie Chambers stepped in, and in 1991, Davis went to work for him as an administrative aide. Chambers and his longtime legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, helped to ground him and to restructure.

He got an education on legislative processes, how to treat people and how to deal with those who might approach him inappropriately. Working with Chambers and Grandberry, handling constituent complaints and inquiries about the departments of corrections, health and human services, and roads, and the University of Nebraska, restored his confidence.

“I became familiar with the complaint system at an early stage,” he said.

He worked for Chambers until 1996, then joined the Nebraska Ombudsman’s office to work on corrections cases, coming with the recommendation of not only Chambers but Corrections Director Harold Clarke.

“I was one of the first to have a director support me to come and work in the ombudsman’s office,” he said.

He still has the letter Clarke wrote, he said.

“Now, he later probably regretted it, but still … ,” Davis said.

* * * 

You know the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, about the naked king's subjects who don't dare to tell him they don't see his clothes for fear that they will be seen as stupid?

Davis is that rare person who is willing to say to the prison administration: You have no clothes on. The person who calls administrators on an issue that is not what he believes they say it is, he said.

When asked if someone from the Department of Corrections could comment on the work Davis does in the prison, spokeswoman Laura Strimple responded that it would not be appropriate for the department to provide opinions about the work of another government agency.

Davis loves his job, getting out of his office and going to the prisons. He could take a complaint via phone, letter or email, but he wouldn’t have the complete picture of what’s going on, he said.

“It’s a passion,” he said. “That’s how you learn, when you’re out there.”

He has been able to calm down inmates, de-escalate altercations, talk to administrators about the rights of prisoners. He works on the problems inmates have in getting access to out-of-cell time, recreation, showers, the law library, visitation, mental health and medical care — those things that contribute to basic quality of life.

“They are inmates, I agree, and their rights have been taken away because they’ve been sentenced to do time,” Davis said. “But we still as a state need to take care of these guys and provide the quality of life that they should have ... because they’re going to get out.”

They need to be prepared to transition back into society, he said, not come out worse than when they went in.

He asks: How would you like one of those guys who hadn't been treated properly to move in next door to you?

“I use that as a barometer. I want this guy to get this program because he could be my neighbor one day,” he said.

Doug Koebernick, the inspector general for Corrections, said Davis plays an important role. He has developed relationships with people throughout the system, including staff, that provide him access others do not have, Koebernick said.

There are many good people working on the front lines, Davis said.

"What I have a problem with is the administration that lacks transparency,” he said. "I go over there and I see something different than what they're telling me, then I have to bring it back to the attention of the powers that be.

"I get in the weeds. I talk to folks, I interview inmates, I interview staff ... I get the real story."

Davis does it with respect, of the inmates and the staff, he said.

“I think respect goes a long way,” Davis said.

There’s no formula, other than building trust and relationships, he said.

“They see me as someone who will listen and deal with their concerns seriously,” he said. 

Davis and others in the ombudsman office, including Koebernick, have helped ensure some of the things that happen in other states' prisons, such as staff abusing authority, don't happen so much in Nebraska. 

"I think the fact that we're there, and especially that James is there in those units, has a laudable effect in terms of making it clear that there is accountability and that there are eyes from the outside on that little world," Lux said.

Supreme Court lays low after Kavanaugh confirmation

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.

The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh's confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray. Even Roberts' rebuke of President Donald Trump, after the president criticized a federal judge, was in defense of an independent, apolitical judiciary.

The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last.

When they gather in private Friday to consider new cases for arguments in April and into the next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.

Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.

There already are signs that the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases that are likely to produce the ideological and partisan divisions that their colleagues seem eager to avoid.

In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.

Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.

The two votes can't be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration's favor.

But Lawrence Solum, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University's law school, said Roberts seems to have two reasons to limit the court's involvement in hot-button cases: his preference for taking small steps in the law and his concern for the court's reputation.

"It's clear that 5-4 decisions will be perceived by many, many lawyers, many politicians and large numbers of the public at large as ideological decisions," Solum said. "So given Roberts' desire to preserve the legitimacy of the court, he could be highly motivated to avoid decisions like that in the next immediate period in the history of the court."

The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them.

Then, over the summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement meant that Trump would also get to replace the court's swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh's track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.

The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assault when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and they confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session.

One result of the Kavanaugh turmoil has been the most serious discussion in decades of limiting the court's powers, including possibly increasing the number of justices, Solum said. "It suggests that the legitimacy of the court is at issue now in perhaps a way it hasn't been until recently."

Roberts is not only the chief justice, but he has essentially taken Kennedy's place as the swing vote — the conservative justice nearest the court's center. The Supreme Court will go only as far as Roberts is willing in either direction.

He can try to keep the court entirely out of some cases, though that requires him to be able to persuade at least one other conservative justice to go along. That's what happened in the Planned Parenthood case, when Kavanaugh voted to deny review. "The difficult confirmation battle may lead to a bit of caution," said John McGinnis, a Northwestern University law school professor.

When the justices do plunge into controversy, Roberts will be able "to write or insist that decisions be narrowly drawn," McGinnis said.

Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more. That allows Roberts to take a long view, McGinnis said, and await a time when political tensions and concerns about the court's reputation subside.

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The 10 biggest stories in Lincoln and across Nebraska from 2018

From local government to education to crime and business news, there were lots of big headlines in Lincoln and across Nebraska this year.

Here's 10 stories that had a major impact on the city and state, many of which will continue to be in the news as the calendar turns to 2019. 

10. The emerald ash borer officially arrived in Lincoln in August, when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture announced the tree-destroying insect was found in a trap northwest of Pioneers Park. Though the city has been planning and spending money in anticipation of the emerald ash borer’s arrival in Lincoln for years, the confirmation makes the future devastation real. Lincoln will lose almost all of its ash trees over the next decade.

9. The American Association of University Professors in June added the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to its list of administrations censured for violating academic freedom. Delegates to the national faculty group unanimously agreed with a report stating UNL violated the academic freedom of English department lecturer and Ph.D. student Courtney Lawton when it removed her from the classroom in an effort to end ongoing backlash against the university.

8. In March, 22-year-old Edgar Union Jr. was shot and killed following a fight between feuding groups. Police have accused Natavian Morton of his killing. At 16, he was the youngest alleged murderer in Lincoln since the 1980s.

7. August was a turbulent month for Lincoln’s Catholic leaders, who faced fire for their mishandling of three priests accused of sexual assault, moral misconduct and an inappropriate relationship with an altar server. The allegations led to a police investigation. They prompted the bishop to remove a priest, apologize for a lack of transparency, convene a review board and address a church full of parishioners in a closed meeting. And they brought uncomfortable scrutiny to a diocese often considered the nation’s most orthodox.

6. The Lincoln City Council in May unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Lincoln Public Schools in which each entity will commit $1.05 million to address school security issues. The interlocal agreement administers and funds the Safe and Successful Kids initiative. It includes funding for before- and after-school programs called community learning centers, additional mental health services for schools, a threat-assessment police officer and middle school resource officers.

5. The Younkers store at Gateway Mall shuttered its doors in August. Younkers' parent company, Bon-Ton stores, declared bankruptcy in February and in April announced it was going out of business. Younkers had been at the mall since 1987. Last week, Sears announced it was closing its store at Gateway.

4. After seven years of legislative refusal to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, voters in November extended coverage to an estimated 90,000 adult Nebraskans who are working at low-wage jobs. That decision will bring a projected $1.3 billion in federal funding flowing into the state during the first three years of the new program. Legislative implementation of the new program may touch off battles over state budget allotments and funding levels in 2019,  along with potential efforts to attach conditions on access to continuing coverage.

3. Aubrey Trail and Bailey Boswell were charged in Sydney Loofe’s killing in June after an admission by Trail that he caused her death accidentally. The state is seeking the death penalty for both.

2. Lincoln will have a new mayor in 2019. The passage of the mayoral term limits charter amendment in November derailed Mayor Chris Beutler’s plan to run for a fourth term and created an open field for other candidates.

1. In August, condemned prisoner Carey Dean Moore, who had seven previous execution dates set and then set aside in his 38 years on death row, became the first Nebraska inmate in 21 years to be executed. Moore, 60, was handed the death sentence in 1980 for the 1979 murders of Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland and Reuel Van Ness Jr. It was the first time the state had used lethal injection to execute somebody and the first time fentanyl had been used in an execution in the United States. There also was a lawsuit by media and the ACLU to force the state to reveal from whom it got the lethal injection drugs and another lawsuit by two drug manufacturers aimed at stopping the state from using two drugs in the lethal injection cocktail.