Building connections

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Even though Oakland County 44th District Court Judge Derek Meinecke entered the courthouse as a first-time judge in January, he felt the joy of familiarity as he returned to the court where he first served as a law clerk He wants to always make Royal Oak residents feel welcome at the court.

Photos by John Meiu

New judge puts emphasis on serving community

By Christine L. Mobley
Legal News

Community-driven.

That’s one way to describe the newest member to the 44th District Court bench, but it would only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many facets of Judge Derek Meinecke.
Born in Grand Rapids to journalist Corky Meinecke and his wife Valerie, the future jurist moved throughout the state as his dad wrote for various newspapers.

Meinecke once thought he might follow in the footsteps of his father — a sportswriter who lost his battle with cancer in 1997 — but decided that he could use his “inherited” storytelling skills for another purpose.

“When I was in law school, I worked part-time at the Detroit Free Press doing freelance work covering high school sports and I had written a couple of articles and one of the staff members said I had that storytelling ability they had seen previously in my dad, but I saw the opportunity to do that in front of a jury.

“I felt my long-term goal was to do trial work and I would be able to convey things that had happened to somebody who had been wronged, to be able to go in front of a jury and evoke that kind of emotion and bring them to the moment the way my dad had through an article. I was going to do that through closing argument.”

Meinecke and his wife Mandy had just gotten back from their honeymoon the day before he started his first job in the legal profession which, interestingly enough, was as a law clerk at the 44th District Court in Royal Oak for now-retired Judge Daniel Sawicki — a jurist who has had a significant impact on Meinecke as his mentor, friend, and father figure.

Leaving the court in February 2001, Meinecke joined the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office where his youthful appearance coupled with his tenacious persistence in prosecuting cases would yield him the nickname “baby-faced terminator.”

The young assistant prosecutor and Sawicki stayed in touch over the years and Sawicki was one of many who supported Meinecke in his pursuit of the bench.

Even though Meinecke, at age 37, was entering the courthouse as a first-time judge in January, he felt the joy of familiarity as he embarked on his new journey.

“It’s certainly quite a change in circumstance as you can imagine, but the nice thing I can say is that 65 to 70 percent of the staff when I left are still here — so talk about an easy transition. These are people I’ve worked with, I know and I know all of the great things that they’re capable of.

“It really felt like I was coming home again just in a different position. Although it’s a different role, I have really worked hard to make sure that I could be in the best position to try to continue on the work that Judge Sawicki had done for 30 years. Those aren’t shoes that you fill over night, but rather a tradition that you just try to build on.

“I am personally happy to have this position for the work I want to do here in Royal Oak, but I’m also happy because Judge Sawicki knows me and knows what I’m capable of,” he said when reflecting upon taking the reigns from his mentor. “I understand the responsibility. I embrace it and I just look forward to making sure his trust in me — his belief in me — that those things are met and exceeded.”

An opportunity for building connections is how Meinecke views his judgeship.

“I recognize that this is the only court that some people will ever see but there’s intimacy there. I’m going to deal with somebody on a case and then I’m going to see them at the local grocery store or run into them at one of our restaurants and to me that sort of closeness is what is so attractive about this position and that’s something my dad taught me to focus on — the importance of connecting with people and looking for those long-termconnections. It’s that way that you can really get to know somebody and really make a change in the community.”

And it’s that desire to create connections that guides Meinecke and helps him to determine the type of judge he wants to be.

“I truly believe that so much of what I do in the courtroom is absolutely important but also the judge’s role — especially at the district court level — is being a community judge: being out there in the community, being involved with the youth of the community, being involved in awareness efforts, being involved with the seniors and the service clubs.”

In his spare time, this father of three young children not only coaches the Royal Oak Chargers youth football team, which he proudly saw win the 2012 Oak Bowl Championship, but he volunteers with the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan, and coaches Royal Oak youth teams for girls’ softball and basketball.

He has also been honored by various organizations such as SAVE (Serving Adults who are Vulnerable and/or Elderly), the Area Agency on Aging, and the Oakland County Coordinating Council Against Domestic Violence.

“I’m a pretty energetic guy and I’m ready to take on that type of role and I think that’s the type of approach you need to take to be a successful district court judge.”

It’s a commitment to service within the community that he hopes to pass along to his children: Drew, 11; Kate, 9; and Jane, 4.

“They get to see the benefit of a life of service — the rewards, how great I feel after I help somebody in the community. I want them to choose to have that as part of their life too — that they look to help others and look to situations that need fixing and be part of the solution.

“When it comes down to it, our children are the best of us,” Meinecke said. “I feel it’s my job to foster greatness in my kids and the kids of this community.”

As part of this endeavor, Meinecke has invited 4th and 5th graders into his courtroom so they can observe the judicial system at work and gain understanding of it while they still are receptive to the authority and dignity of the proceedings.

Making Royal Oak residents always feel welcome at the 44th District Court is also something the judge wishes to achieve.

“I just want to create a court that everybody feels like they’ll have their fair opportunity to be heard and that everybody in the community knows that they have a court always on guard, ready to protect, ready to rehabilitate, ready to do what is necessary and appropriate to make sure the community is strong and its community members are taken care of.

“I want people to know that the court is accessible; the court is innovative; and the court is a place where justice lives.”

And in his quest to make that happen, he remembers the words of his mentor and friend.

“One of the things Judge Sawicki used to say is ‘You can’t take yourself too seriously in this position. As long as you don’t hold yourself higher than anybody else just because you get to sit a little higher and people stand up when you come in. As long as you do everything you can to remain unaffected by that, then you’ll keep that connection and maintain that closeness.’”

By working for and with the community, Meinecke hopes to keep that closeness throughout his judicial career.