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Looking behind the scenes: Law library’s name honors Lowell and Keith Sparks

By: Jim Ruffalo
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Placer County government earlier failed in its bid to ship the county’s law library from Auburn to Roseville, a scheme seemingly halted only after a statute was found compelling the Board of Supervisors to maintain such a facility at the county seat. But come the first Wednesday of next month, there will be a profound change at the 1523 Lincoln Way edifice. Fortunately, the proposed change is all for the best. Seems that the Placer County Bar Association and the library’s board of trustees teamed up to approve the naming of the facility. And after July 2, it will be formally — and better — known as the Sparks Law Library. Mind you that “Sparks” is plural, and the word honors what many local jurists and barristers think were two of the finest judges ever to come from this part of the free world. Of course, we refer to the late Lowell L. Sparks, and his son, Keith F. Sparks. Back in the late 1940s, Lowell was Placer County’s lone Superior Court judge, and served through the early 1960s. Keith, now 75 and residing in Loomis, graduated from Placer High in the early 1950s and, after a stint with the U.S. Navy, eventually found his way to Cal’s Boalt Hall and into a legal career. “It turned out to be a wonderful choice. Fortune really struck me,” he said, adding that the career turned out to be “intellectually stimulating and endlessly fascinating,” so much so that he still puts in time as a part-time mediator. After law school, Keith went into private practice in Roseville, and eventually became the Placer County District Attorney’s Office chief deputy before being appointed to the Placer County bench. His tenure there was brief because, in October of 1981, he was elevated to the Third District Court where he remained until retirement in August 1997. But his days on the local bench are still fondly remembered by those who found their way into his court. “I remember when I filed a motion in his court when was a very young attorney,” legendary lawyer Tom Leupp recalled. “He then asked the (prosecution) if it had received my motion, which it had. Then he asked if they considered filing a response or seeking a continuance, which it admitted it had not,” Leupp said, adding that Judge Sparks then took the prosecution through the machinations of such matters, pointing out the lack of such responses only made Leupp’s motion meritorious on its face. “You always had to be fully prepared for his court. He was serious and always had thoughtful questions. For a young lawyer, it was both intimidating and exciting,” Leupp added. Tom Beattie, a top deputy for Placer County District Attorney Brad Fenocchio, has several reasons to be happy for the Sparks duo, not the least of which is that he’s a relative. However, that said, he has professional values to ascribe to Keith. “He went from being an absolute brilliant trial lawyer, to an excellent DA chief deputy, and then onto a stellar career on the bench,” Beattie said. “They say his dad was one of the most highly respected judges around, and an absolute ‘in-charge’ judge. And Keith, a bit more fun-loving in his early days, turned out to be an absolutely brilliant legal mind. I’m very proud of both of them.” Beattie claimed that Lowell Sparks wanted to take on other jobs while still a judge. “He very much wanted to teach English, especially correct grammar, and also wanted to be a basketball coach,” he said. Perhaps that’s why Keith turned out to be such a scholar athlete, having been a baseball player and pretty good basketball player for the Hillmen. Beattie and Leupp went to Del Oro High together, and another classmate — Sheriff Ed Bonner — remembers that early in his career, he had tours as bailiff for Keith Sparks’ court. “Even though I was young, you could see right off that (Keith) was a brilliant and incredible jurist. He was exactly what our founding fathers had in mind for our courts because he was completely impartial and had this amazing aura of dignity,” the sheriff said. And if you want an opinion from the higher levels of court, try this one from current Third District Justice Rick Sims. During a Christmas party at Frank Calabretta’s Bail House a few year ago, conversation drifted to who were the better judges to come through our little village. Sims immediately hearkened the name of Keith Sparks, and insisted that he — if I remember the quote exactly right — “had all of the legal acumen that could have, and should have, placed him in the U.S. Supreme Court.” Keith chuckled at that when I read it back to him the other day. “Rick said that exactly as I paid him to do,” Sparks said with a chuckle, then added how very nice it was that a person as busy and learned as Sims would say such things. Keith also says he’s honored that the local legal community felt the need to place “Sparks” onto the library’s nameplate, but is prouder still that it also honors his father. Jim Ruffalo appears Sundays in the Journal. He can be reached at jmruffalo@yahoo.com or comment at auburnjournal.com.