Sense of Duty

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District Court judge always ready to ‘roll up her sleeves’

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In June, a 40-year-old jurist who has grown accustomed to hearing the greeting “Your Honor” admitted that she was “truly honored” to have been named the recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Public Servant Award from the Oakland County Bar Association.

Expect such recognition to someday become old hat for Maureen McGinnis, a 52-4 District Court judge who launched her career in public service as a Troy City Council member in 2009 at the age of 31.

The 2009 race was her first run for elective office and set the stage for a 4-year term on Troy’s governing body, a time when the city was being tested on a host of budget and political fronts. In short, it proved to be the age-old “baptism under fire” for McGinnis, who at the time was a family law attorney in private practice with her father Don.

“I knew it was going to be an interesting experience, I just didn’t appreciate to what degree, “ McGinnis said of her first taste of public service. “Because of the recession, and the loss of property tax revenue, it was a very rough time for the city – and for that matter, cities across the country.”

At her first official meeting as a new council member in 2009, McGinnis barely had time to savor the glow of the swearing-in ceremony when she was asked to consider another Troy first – a 1.9-mill tax hike proposal for the 2010 ballot. The measure was designed to head off projected layoffs in the city’s police and fire departments, as well as to curb plans to close the library because of a budget shortfall.

Not everyone in the community, of course, was on board with the tax hike plan, making their opposition known in sharply worded attacks appearing anonymously on message boards that invite citizen feedback.

“Criticism comes with the turf, so I anticipated it, but I’m not sure that anyone can digest it when people veer off track and make it personal,” said McGinnis. “We can all appreciate a difference of opinion when it comes to policy, but the discussion really becomes difficult when people lose sight of the issues and engage in personal attacks.”

Despite the political volatility during her time on Troy City Council, McGinnis was willing to listen when she was being encouraged to run for a seat on the district court bench in 2014, a decision where the elective stakes were considerably higher.

“It had always been a professional goal of mine to run for a judgeship, yet I wasn’t sure if the timing was right on a personal and professional level,” she admitted. “It took courage and a little bit of a push to make it happen.”

Shortly after her first child was born in January 2014, McGinnis officially began work on her judicial campaign, enlisting support from various quarters for the open seat on the 52-4 District Court in Troy. The campaign, which included a primary race that attracted two other judicial challengers, drew upon her strengths.

“I had the pleasure of working with Judge McGinnis on the OCBA New Lawyers Committee, as well as on the OCBA Board of Directors and the State Bar Board of Commissioners (2012-18),” said Jennifer Grieco, the immediate past president of the State Bar. “I often marveled at how she could juggle so many responsibilities at the same time and then tackle an even bigger undertaking like running for District Court judge.

“But Judge McGinnis does not shy away from working hard and she doesn’t ever appear to be stressed,” Grieco added. “Although she has a wicked sense of humor, she brings a calm level head to her leadership roles, which serves her well on the bench.”

So much so that McGinnis makes it her habit to never turn down a “request for her time and attention and was always willing to add to her plate,” according to Grieco, a partner with the Birmingham firm of Altior Law.

“She never hesitates to roll up her sleeves to be part of the solution,” said Grieco. “She is a thoughtful leader who speaks to add value, when such value is needed and not because of a desire to hear herself speak or out of some obligation to contribute to the discussion.”

Her leadership skills were honed in high school, college, and law school where she was involved in various student government organizations. A graduate of Troy High School, McGinnis headed west for college, earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Colorado in the scenic city of Boulder.

“My dad graduated from Colorado, trying out for the ski team there,” McGinnis said. “Ever since I was in sixth grade, I had my sights set on going to Boulder. It was the only school that I wanted to attend.”

From there, McGinnis headed to Michigan State University College of Law, which traces its roots to the former Detroit College of Law. In 2003, she joined her father in his Troy-based practice, specializing in family and criminal law for more than a decade.

Her father, a past president of the OCBA, served for years on the State Bar’s Board of Commissioners, an experience that eventually became a “first” in the annals of the organization. In the fall of 2009, the McGinnis-McGinnis team shared the noteworthy title of the first father-and-daughter combination to serve on the State Bar’s board.

The occasion, of course, was a particularly proud moment for the elder McGinnis, one of many he has experienced in regard to his daughter.

“I guess what I’m most proud of is the decision she made to go into public service instead of the more lucrative practice of law,” said McGinnis, who now heads the Troy firm of McGinnis Chiappelli Spresser. “I think sometimes she regrets having not stayed with me and I certainly regret not seeing her everyday, but the public and the citizens of her district court are the winners and ultimately that’s what counts.”

In the meantime, Judge McGinnis is making a name for herself in judicial circles, currently serving as vice chair of the Oakland County District Judges Association. She also has developed a special passion for her work as the presiding judge of the Treatment Court program in the 52-4 District, working with Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig and other colleagues to “provide much-needed support to those struggling with substance abuse disorders.”

The program, she said, has served as a “lifeline to many of our citizens” who have struggled with alcohol and drug problems.

“We have seen some amazing personal transformations in the program,” said McGinnis. “We’re helping people gain the treatment that they need to become productive members of society, so that they can avoid the cycle of being churned through the criminal justice system repeatedly.”

As the mother of two young children, McGinnis is particularly attuned to the pressures that working families face, which is just one of the many reasons she has volunteered her time on behalf of such organizations as Habitat for Humanity, the Family Law Assistance Project, and as a board member of the Troy Community Foundation.

Her desire to help worthy causes is an endearing character trait, said Butzel Long attorney Kaveh Kashef, a past president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation.

“Maureen is extremely kind, dedicated to her family, loyal to her friends, intelligent, and passionate about the practice of law,” said Kashef, who shared an anecdotal story about how he came to know the future judge.

“As a law graduate from an out-of-state law school, I did not have any connections at all to the legal community,” Kashef related. “Unlike other new lawyers who might have classmates they would see in court, I would sit in the back row and not know a soul. I briefly met Maureen at an OCBA event and then saw her soon thereafter in a courtroom. I sat next to her and made my first friend through the OCBA.

“Since that time, I have found Maureen to be a tireless ambassador for the OCBA and lawyers, in general. In private practice, she was dedicated to her client and a strong advocate, but never sacrificed her reputation as a ‘lawyer’s lawyer.’”


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