Shared responsibility: District judge takes pride in having positive impact

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As the son of one of the state’s finest sports writers, Derek Meinecke seemed destined for a career in newspapering, especially after he was accepted for enrollment at Northwestern University, which boasts one of the premier journalism schools (Medill) in the country.

His father, Robert “Corky” Meinecke, got his start with the Booth newspaper chain, working for its flagship paper, The Grand Rapids Press, and then The Bay City Times, where he became sports editor.

“He was a great writer, but an even better dad,” said Meinecke of his father, who died of colon cancer in 1997 at age 44 after covering the Detroit Pistons during their glory days for The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press. “He had a special talent for connecting with people and for developing relationships that were long lasting.”

Now, some 23 years after his father’s passing, Meinecke can take joy in knowing that his work as a 44th District Court judge is a reflection and “an extension of what my dad devoted his career to” as a newspaperman.

“We took different career paths, but we were all about the same goal — helping make a positive impact in people’s lives,” said Meinecke, now serving his second six-year term on the district court bench in the cities of Royal Oak and Berkley. “My father taught me many lessons, foremost of which was to believe in myself and to be of service to others.”

At the age of 21, Meinecke graduated early from Northwestern in 1996, enabling him to spend time at home with his father as he waged the final months of a cancer battle.

“He bravely fought it for more than a year, and even though it took a tremendous toll on him, he still was a source of strength for our family,” Meinecke said of his father’s final days. “I felt blessed to have been home at that time and to help provide some comfort to him. No words were left unsaid.”

Just two months before his father died, Meinecke became engaged to his future wife, Mandy, following a two-year courtship. The couple, who met on a blind date, married in May 1998, a month before Meinecke began work as a law clerk following his first year of law school at Wayne State University Law School.

“One of my uncles was an attorney and that definitely was a factor in my decision to apply to law school,” said Meinecke, a product of Rochester Adams High School.

Interestingly, Meinecke landed his clerkship job with Judge Daniel Sawicki, his predecessor on the Oakland County 44th District Court bench.

“I began work there after our honeymoon, and then attended law school in the evening for the next 2-1/2 years to obtain my degree,” Meinecke said. “There was nothing easy about working full time and going to law school at the same time, but somehow I managed.”

The rigorous work-school schedule also would serve as a precursor to the challenges to come as an assistant prosecutor with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, then headed by David Gorcyca.

There he prosecuted violent offenders and worked with the “most vulnerable victims as a member of the special victims’ unit focused on domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse, and sexual assault.”

For his efforts in prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault cases, Meinecke was nominated by HAVEN for the Domestic Violence Prevention Award, a coveted honor presented to him by the Oakland County Coordinating Council Against Domestic Violence.

“Many of the cases involved unspeakable acts against young and old alike,” Meinecke said of his time in the trial trenches at the Prosecutor’s Office. “I did my best to allow my home life to give me the energy to deal with the worst of what humanity is capable of.

“Some of the cases were so disturbing that they were hard to comprehend, but those made me even more determined to see that justice was served.”

In particular, he remembers the case of an 89-year-old woman who was assaulted by a serial rapist who already had served 7-year and 14-year prison terms.

“She was an amazing woman and was able to fight him off during the assault,” Meinecke said of the case. “Then as we proceeded to trial, he twice tried to change his appearance to make it more difficult for her to identify him. In the end, none of his ploys worked and he was convicted of the crime.”

Following the trial, the victim presented Meinecke with a special gift as a token of her appreciation.

“She gave me a plant that is still growing to this day, and is a reminder of what an inspiration she has been to me since we first met,” said Meinecke of the elderly woman who died last year at age 99. “She could have easily given up, but she was determined to see that he paid the price.”

In terms of inspiration, Meinecke said he regularly receives a double dose from his wife and mother.

His mother, Valerie, is “one of the strongest and toughest people I know, who has devoted enormous energy to the lives of her children and grandchildren,” while also helping preserve the legacy of her late husband.

“She was instrumental in establishing a memorial scholarship in my father’s name at Grand Valley (State University), where he obtained his degree,” said Meinecke of his mother, a retired nurse. “She displayed an amazing inner strength during my dad’s illness and persevered through the challenges following his death.”

Meinecke’s wife, Mandy, earned her business degree from the University of Michigan and currently is Manager of Business Development for GreenPath Financial Wellness, a national nonprofit organization that offers a range of financial counseling services.

“Mandy is the hardest working person I know, and manages her responsibilities in an organized, cooperative, and approachable way,”
Meinecke said of his wife of 22 years. “She is the backbone of our family and I am so blessed to have her in my life.”

The couple has three children, Drew (18), Kate (16), and Jane (11). In more ways than one, their son’s birth came on a day to remember.

“Drew was born on 9/11, which made for a very eventful day as we watched the terrorist attacks unfold,” Meinecke said. “It truly was surreal, especially since we also were worried about friends and relatives in Washington and New York that day.”

Drew is a sophomore at U-M and may pursue a career in academia. His sister, Kate, will be a junior at Royal Oak High School this fall, and is a key member of the cross country and track teams there. The youngest Meinecke, Jane, will be a sixth-grader at Guardian Angels School in Clawson.

“I’ve been very involved in their lives, coaching them in basketball, softball, and football,” Meinecke said of his children. “It’s brought me great joy and has helped us develop a special bond.”

His younger daughter has the smarts and temperament to become a lawyer, according to her father.

“In fact, she’s been kind enough to tell me that ‘I’m going to take your job someday,’” Meinecke said with a laugh. “I’ve told my children to have a strong sense of self, I just wasn't expecting it to show up in the sixth grade.”


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