News & Politics

Tennessee Family Court Judge Jailed Minority Children Illegally for Years—and She's Still on the Bench

Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport, center. (Rutherford County website)

In a joint investigation between NPR and ProPublica, the news organizations found that Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport in Rutherford County, Tenn., has sentenced minority children to jail outside of what the law allows. In 2016, Scott had eleven black children arrested during school, the youngest of whom was nine, for allegedly not stopping a fight between other students. Not intervening in a violent fight is not a crime.

On the order of Davenport, police officers cuffed and dragged four girls away from their school while they screamed, cried, and at least one of them vomited. Their parents weren’t notified until after the traumatic event.

What happened on that Friday and in the days after, when police rounded up even more kids, would expose an ugly and unsettling culture in Rutherford County, one spanning decades. In the wake of these mass arrests, lawyers would see inside a secretive legal system that’s supposed to protect kids, but in this county did the opposite. Officials flouted the law by wrongfully arresting and jailing children. One of their worst practices was stopped following the events at Hobgood, but the conditions that allowed the lawlessness remain. The adults in charge failed. Yet they’re still in charge. Tennessee’s systems for protecting children failed. Yet they haven’t been fixed.

Eleven children in all were arrested over the video, including the 8-year-old taken in by mistake. Media picked up the story. Parents and community leaders condemned the actions of police. “Unimaginable, unfathomable,” a Nashville pastor said. “Unconscionable,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” three state legislators said.

Who is Judge Donna Scott Davenport and why does she still have a black robe?

Rutherford County established the position of elected juvenile court judge in 2000, and ever since, Donna Scott Davenport has been the job’s only holder. She sometimes calls herself the “mother of the county.”

Davenport runs the juvenile justice system, appointing magistrates, setting rules and presiding over cases that include everything from children accused of breaking the law to parents accused of neglecting their children. While the county’s mayor, sheriff and commissioners have turned over, she has stayed on, becoming a looming figure for thousands of families. “She’s been the judge ever since I was a kid,” said one mother whose own kids have cycled through Davenport’s courtroom. One man, now in his late 20s, said that when he was a kid in trouble, he would pray for a magistrate instead of Davenport: “If she’s having a bad day, most definitely, you’re going to have a bad day.”

She makes Judge Judy Scheindlin’s point that family courts are packed with “morons and political hacks,” admitting that it took her five tries to pass the bar exam.

In a deposition, Davenport said she first took the bar exam about a year after finishing law school. She failed, then kept trying.

“How — how many times have you taken the bar?” an attorney asked her.

“I passed on the fifth time,” she said.

The Tennessee legislature has the ability to impeach her, but they haven’t.

The following year, Rutherford County violated federal law 191 times by keeping kids locked up too long, according to a story later published by The Tennessean. By law, children held for such minor acts as truancy were to appear before a judge within 24 hours and be released no more than a day after that. The newspaper interviewed Davenport, who estimated half those violations occurred because a kid had cursed her or someone else. For cursing, she said, she typically sentenced kids to two to 10 days in jail. “Was I in violation?” she said. “Heck, yes. But am I going to allow a child to cuss anyone out? Heck, no.”

It turns out that Davenport has been admonished several times by higher courts and disciplinary committees for flouting the law, but no one removed her from her job.

In 2016, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Davenport. In a family law matter, a father’s lawyers had asked to move his case to another county…The reprimand found that Davenport’s “intemperate conduct” threatened the right to a fair hearing.

In one case, Davenport actually disobeyed two appeals court rulings and terminated a mother’s parental rights without authority, blatantly disobeying the higher courts.

Davenport, finding that a mother had neglected her daughter, granted custody to another couple. Two higher courts disagreed and ordered Davenport to reunify the mother and child. Instead, Davenport terminated the mother’s parental rights. The other couple then adopted the girl, after being “exhorted” by Davenport to move quickly, according to a state Court of Appeals opinion.

The adoption went through while a challenge to Davenport’s parental termination ruling was still pending. In the second go-round, a state appeals court judge made clear his displeasure, saying, during oral argument, “Our little system works pretty simply”: If a higher court tells a lower court to do something, the lower court does it. “That didn’t happen in this case,” he said. Two months later, the appeals court overruled Davenport for a second time. Saying it was “troubled by the proceedings to this point,” the court ordered Davenport to reunite the mother and child — “expeditiously.”

No one in the public or media can find out what Davenport is up to because “court files are mostly off-limits; proceedings can be closed at a judge’s discretion.” Bad judges always close their cases and claim that  “privacy” issues demand it.

RELATED: Shocking Lawsuit Alleges Mo. Family Court Judge Unlawfully Imprisoned ‘America’s Got Talent’ Stars

This is why cameras should be installed in every courtroom in America including the juvenile and family courts. Due process is more important than privacy. How many more of these outrages does the public have to find out about before they demand transparency in the judiciary and put some limits on these people? And what does Davenport have to do to be removed from the bench—kill someone? What horror would she have to inflict for the Tennessee legislature to do its job and remove her?