Up to the challenge: Former magistrate relishes start of a new legal chapter

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In her mind, one of the “best parts about being a lawyer is meeting a challenge head-on.”

A. Kay Stanfield Spinks—as a mediator, an arbitrator, a magistrate, and a bar association president—has had plenty of opportunities to do just that during a 33-year career in the law.

For the past 23 years, Stanfield Spinks served as a magistrate for the 46th District Court in Southfield, one of the busiest district court operations in the state. It was a job she balanced with a busy private practice specializing in business and real estate transaction matters.

Now, a few months after retiring from her responsibilities as a magistrate, Stanfield Spinks is settling into yet another new legal role as the director of Portfolio Development and special counsel for MayfieldGentry Realty Advisors, an SEC registered investment firm specializing in commercial real estate and offering investment management services for institutional investors from its headquarters in the Talon Centre along the Detroit River.

As is her custom, Stanfield Spinks figures to excel at the job, relishing another opportunity to prove her legal worth in a career dotted with accomplishments.

“My parents always taught me that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do, so I enrolled in law school in the early ‘70s,” Stanfield Spinks said. “The percentage of female lawyers at that time was so small it almost didn’t register, but that didn’t stop me or other women from pursuing our dream of becoming involved in the law.”

She grew up in northwest Detroit, near the University of Detroit campus in a close-knit family of four, including her parents and brother Ted.  Her parents, Lucille and Willis, came to the Motor City in 1945 from Arkansas, where they both were supervisors at a munitions plant during World War II. Her father was a licensed barber, owning his own barbershop and several businesses before retiring, while her mother was a  real estate agent and homemaker.

“My dad was the eldest son in his family and assumed a lot of family responsibilities when his father died at an early age,” Stanfield Spinks related. “My mother was known for her effervescent personality and her positive outlook. My mom and I were always very close. She was my greatest inspiration.”

Cancer would claim both her parents, just months apart in late 2005 and early 2006. The disease also took the life of her first husband, Terrance Brown, a former educational administrator at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, in 1996 at the age of 45.

Her parents were fortunate to be around in 2004 when Stanfield Spinks remarried, exchanging wedding vows with Adrian Spinks, a Friend of the Court referee in Oakland County. It was an “arranged” marriage, she said with a wink. A former colleague decided to “play Cupid,” doing her matchmaking best by setting up a lunch date at a favorite restaurant off Telegraph. The lunch get-together would be the start of a four-year courtship between the two attorneys.

“Adrian was born in California and his dad graduated from Howard University Law School, in the same class as (U.S. Court of Appeals Judge) Damon Keith,” Stanfield Spinks said. “Adrian’s mom is now 96 and remains active. A retired teacher and librarian, she is an accomplished bridge player and has traveled the world. She is an inspiration to all who are privileged to know her.”

Stanfield Spinks’ husband, who moved to Detroit when he was 8 years old, earned his bachelor and law degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C.  He is a former assistant prosecutor in Oakland County and has served as a Friend of the Court referee since 1988.

“He has been very involved in community activities, serving as president of the Pontiac City Council and briefly as mayor of the city,” Stanfield Spinks said of her husband. “He is widely admired. He is a wonderful husband and such a positive influence in his work and in the community.”

He also is addicted—to golf.

“He may need a 12-step program for that,” his wife joked of the golfing habit.

Stanfield Spinks has displayed a special sense of humor since her high school days at Cass Tech in Detroit, taking it to the University of Michigan, where she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1974.

“I really thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist, but I think that the logic and reason behind the law drew me to the legal profession instead,” said Stanfield Spinks, who earned her law degree from U-M in 1977.

She joined the 46th District Court in Southfield as a magistrate in 1987, an appointment that allowed her to maintain a private practice.

“It started out as a two half-days a week job and mushroomed from there as the volume of cases increased dramatically,” Stanfield Spinks said. “The caseload of the 46th District Court is just amazing. As one of the magistrates, I was responsible for approving complaints and warrants, handling arraignments and probable cause hearings, while also setting bond and bail for defendants. There also were civil small claims cases, along with traffic misdemeanors.”

During her time as magistrate, Stanfield Spinks also became active in the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association, an organization formed in 1990 “with a mission of promoting legal practice opportunities for minorities and women and to facilitate equal justice opportunities for all citizens.” In 1993, as the then president of the Straker Bar Association, Stanfield Spinks was instrumental in creating the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Advocacy Competition. The event, which marked its 18th year last winter, sprung from remarks that Dr. King made during his heyday in the civil rights movement, saying that he wanted to be remembered as a “drum major for justice.”

“I wanted to start a program that honored Dr. King’s wish,” Stanfield Spinks explained. “I also wanted to create a program to support youth, and give them the opportunity to engage in advocacy—to examine legal and social issues in writing and orally.”

She, of course, has been heartened by the growth of the event, which offers high school students in Southeast Michigan and beyond the chance to test their legal mettle, perhaps serving as a launch pad for a career in the law.  The program was adopted by the National Bar Association several years ago, and now students throughout the U.S. participate in local, regional and, ultimately, national competitions, receiving four-year college scholarships.

“The quality of research and oral presentations provided by the students has been magnificent,” Stanfield Spinks said. “I think that Dr. King would be very proud to know that the legacy he left behind lives on, generation after generation, and that the principles of equality and justice are stronger than ever.”

Stanfield Spinks can take pride in her own role toward that end, serving as a mediator and arbitrator in a host of especially nettlesome cases over the course of her career. She particularly remembers her involvement in helping mediate a series of legal disputes surrounding the ill-fated Bloomfield Park development, reportedly a $1 billion project straddling Bloomfield Township and Pontiac, just north of Square Lake Road.

“There were seven lawsuits pending at one point and Oakland County Circuit Court Judge (Denise) Langford Morris recommended that co-facilitators be appointed to help resolve the impasse,” Stanfield Spinks related.

Stanfield Spinks and noted trial attorney George Googasian were chosen for the task, eventually settling the legal disputes over the course of six months and creating a joint development council to steer the proposed project. Stanfield Spinks was appointed to head the development council.

“Being chosen as one of the co-facilitators, was a real highlight of my legal career,” Stanfield Spinks said. “It was quite an undertaking to sort out all the legal, political, and financial issues, but all of the parties were very dedicated to making it happen, and George and I worked well together. After all the legal tangles and delays, we worked hard to get the project moving. I was doubly honored when I was selected to be the neutral chair of the Bloomfield Park Joint Development Council after the final settlement.”

Despite the best legal efforts of many, Bloomfield Park now stands as unfinished business, a monument to an economy gone bad. Work on the project ceased two years ago amid the economic downturn and now nearly a dozen unfinished or empty buildings litter the site off Telegraph Road.

“It’s sad to see what has happened with that project,” Stanfield Spinks said. “After all the legal battles, it looked like it was finally headed in the right direction before the economy really went sour. From what I understand, the next chapter in the legal story is still a long way from being written.”

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