WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24 — The last name Dunnings once lined the pages of a familiar African American success story. And one local judicial candidate is personally working to ensure her namesake can again return to its former glory.
Stuart J. Dunnings Jr. became the first black attorney to practice law citywide. His firm, also the first African American practice in the city, was hailed for its civil rights work. His career touched the lives of thousands of residents over the years.
Dunnings’ children also found success. Shauna Dunnings earned her legal degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and clerked for Federal District Judge Gordon J. Quist. She now serves as administrator at 30th Circuit Court in Ingham County, managing more than 200 employees and a $28 million annual budget.
Stuart Dunnings III and Steven Dunnings also earned law degrees and worked for their father’s practice before Dunnings III was elected Ingham County’s first black prosecutor. He developed a reputation for cracking down on prostitution, sexual assault and domestic abuse during his 19-year career.
But the story took a turn when the Dunnings brothers had a brush with the wrong side of the law.
In 2016, Stuart Dunnings III faced more than a dozen prostitution-related charges in three separate counties following a months-long investigation by the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities later determined he paid multiple women for sex over several years and he was eventually released after 10 months behind bars.
Steven Dunnings also pleaded guilty to engaging the services of a prostitute and was formally reprimanded by the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board for his misdemeanor conviction. He was later stuck with fines and dozens of hours of community service for his crime, but ultimately escaped with his legal license intact.
And now Shauna Dunnings — barring the unlikely success of a write-in candidate — will serve the next six years as a county Probate Court judge. Running unopposed she has made efforts to separate her otherwise successful legal career from the missteps of her siblings.
“I walked into this race knowing that I would have to answer questions like this,” Shauna Dunnings said. “With anyone I’ve talked to, I’ve asked them not to let my brother’s heinous act in any way affect the things I’ve been doing. I ask everyone to please consider the work I’ve done over the last 27 years and to recognize that work.”
The probate court, by nature, only provides statutorily mandated services like the safekeeping of wills, probating estates of the dead, trust administration, appointment and supervision of guardians and conservators and the processing of various mental health matters. The job is largely about helping residents navigate the system.
Shauna Dunnings — with a passion for family law matters — hopes to escape the shadows of her relatives’ mistakes and help local families that will invariably find themselves in her courtroom. She leans on her experience, her cool temperament and willingness to collaborate to find the best ways to provide that assistance.
“I also want to spend more time looking into services that we’re coordinating for our youth as they progress out of the system,” Shauna Dunnings said. “Whether that’s successfully completing probation or children aging out of the welfare system, we need to appropriately link families and children to these community services.”
Shauna Dunnings, 55, spent more than a decade in private practice with a focus on family law cases. She worked as Assistant Friend of the Court and Attorney Referee in Eaton County and later Friend of the Court in Ingham County before she was promoted in 2013 to her post as circuit court administrator. She also received the civility award from the Ingham County Bar Association.
She knows her breadth of experience — and not her last name — will drive her success as a probate judge.
“I think there are very few people who would characterize my reputation as soured in this community,” Shauna Dunnings added. “I just haven’t had it. I’ve been very fortunate to have positive interactions with the community. When talking about what happened with my brother, people understand I’m different.
“We can’t be held accountable for someone else’s bad actions. I think people understand that.”
Editor's Note: This story was corrected to accurately reflect Shauna Dunnings' prior employment.