Members of the local judicial community are mourning the loss of longtime District Court Judge Spencer G. Key Jr. from complications of COVID-19.
“I can tell you that certainly we’re all reeling,” attorney Ben Royster said of Key’s death on Sunday.
“We got notification about a week ago (on Nov. 13) that he had been admitted to the ICU,” Royster advised Monday regarding the judge’s treatment at a Winston-Salem hospital. Key, who was in his mid-50s, had served as a District Court judge for Surry and Stokes counties since 2000.
Qualities that made him special were apparent both in and outside the courtroom, added Royster, a member of a family legal practice with offices in Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain who is president of the District 23 Bar for Surry-Stokes.
“Judge Key was as good and kind as any person you would ever meet,” said Royster, who believes this view was shared by attorneys, court staff members, law enforcement officers, crime victims and even defendants coming before him.
“He was just a kind person,” the District 23 Bar president recalled of Key’s many relationships built over more than 30 years among those in the area legal profession. “You could see that when he was on the bench as well.”
Similar comments were shared by Denise Pardue, another local attorney.
“Judge Spencer G. Key Jr. was so much to so many,” Pardue said in a Facebook posting. “For many people he was light in their darkest hour.”
Another local lawyer praised the huge intellect possessed by Key, while also mentioning his eccentricities and a certain lighthearted demeanor that could take the hard edge off the drama sometimes faced with court cases.
This was referred to by Pardue in her Facebook posting mourning Key:
“He always had a kind word, or a grin, maybe a raised eyebrow, a snicker, sometimes a barber shop song, sometimes a rap song, some dance moves, more times than not a happy laugh and always a kind heart,” she wrote in light of Key’s passing.
“It is a loss for his family, his church, his friends, our community, the Surry/Stokes County bench and bar and to all the others who loved him.”
Key grew up in Pilot Mountain and graduated from East Surry High School, where he earned a scholarship to attend Wake Forest University.
After graduating from Wake Forest, Key received a juris doctor degree at the University of North Carolina which paved the way for his entry into the legal field in 1992 as a general practice attorney.
He served as an assistant district attorney from 1994 to 2000.
Key was last elected as a District Court judge in 2018 and would have been up for reelection in 2022.
The process for filing the vacancy created by his death was unclear this week, which possibly will include a special election along with action by Gov. Roy Cooper.
“Ultimately, the governor will make the appointment,” Royster said of replacing Key. “His loss will have a tremendous impact on our district bar.”
Three other District Court judges serve Surry and Stokes counties, William Southern, Marion Boone and Tom Langan.
Among the survivors of Key, who resided in Mount Airy, is his wife.
“Please remember his wife Erica and his mother Shirley as they deal with this heartbreaking loss,” Pardue posted on Facebook.
The Surry County clerk of court office issued an announcement conveying the impact also felt by the judge’s professional loved ones: “Our court family is heartbroken over the loss of the Honorable District Court Judge Spencer Key Jr.”
“Many prayers to all those who are grieving the loss today,” stated Pardue.
“He will be sorely missed.”