High hurdle


A collector of antique toasters, Judge George Steeh III has nearly three-dozen of the vintage items on display in his Detroit courtroom chambers.

Photo by Robert Chase


Federal jurist relished early election challenge

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In legal terms, he was just a lad at the time, only a few years removed from law school and sporting barely three years of experience as an assistant prosecuting attorney in the topsy-turvy world of Genesee County.

“I had hair down to my shoulders, no money, and no name recognition,” says George Steeh III, acknowledging that he was facing the ultimate in long odds when eyeing his first attempt at elective office.

To add to the challenge at the polls, Steeh decided to take on an incumbent in the race for Washtenaw County Prosecutor.

 And a popular incumbent at that.

“I was young, idealistic, and probably should have known better, but I was confident that I could win,” Steeh admits of the 1976 race against Republican William Delhey.

And win he nearly did, coming up shy by a mere few thousand votes in a county-wide race that figured to be nothing short of a coronation for Delhey.

A University of Michigan alum and a veteran of World War II, Delhey was a wily and highly regarded prosecutor who gained fame as the “Silver Fox” in the successful 1970 prosecution of John Norman Collins, the man convicted in the slaying of an Eastern Michigan University coed. Collins also was the principal suspect in a string of other murders that terrorized the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti community from 1967-69.

“Looking back on that race, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing I ever did,” Steeh says with a wide grin. “But youthful enthusiasm has a way of clouding good judgment at times.”

His zeal would be rewarded in 1986 when he won a seat on the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, an election stepping stone that would pave the way for him to claim a spot on the district court bench two years later. By 1990, he had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Macomb County Circuit Court, a post he would hold for eight years until gaining an appointment to the U.S. District Court, becoming the first Arab American to serve on the Eastern District of Michigan bench.

The Steeh name, of course, was widely known in state legal circles long before his ascension to the federal bench. Steeh’s father, George, made certain of that during a distinguished legal career that included years of success in private practice, eight years as a state senator in the Michigan Legislature, and a long stint as a district court judge.

“In my father, I have had a magnificent role model throughout my legal career,” Judge Steeh says of the family patriarch, now 93 and a resident of Mount Clemens. “He set a tremendous standard and I have tried to follow his decision-making approach both in private practice and as a judge. He has been a great teacher and I can only hope that I have been an equally good learner.”

Now 66 and transitioning to senior status as a federal judge, Steeh is the second of five children. His mother, Barbara, died at age 49 of heart disease, but not before leaving an indelible mark on her family.

“She had an incredible work ethic and was devoted to so many charitable endeavors and good causes,” Steeh says of his mother, a native of Ann Arbor who studied Latin at        U-M before finishing her degree at Oakland University in its first graduating class. “She served as president of the school board, sang in the church choir, volunteered for various children’s aid and human services agencies, and raised five kids. She had endless energy. She set the tone for us as a family.”

Born in Ann Arbor, Steeh spent his formative years in Mount Clemens, and was named captain of the high school football team his senior year. At 180 pounds, Steeh was a two-way performer for his high school squad, playing offensive guard and cornerback. His childhood dreams of playing at U-M were derailed by two undeniable facts:

“I wasn’t big enough and I wasn’t good enough,” he says matter-of-factly. “Other than that, I had all that it takes.”

He certainly had the academic smarts to make it at U-M, earning both his bachelor at law degrees from the Ann Arbor school.

“Most everyone assumed that I was going to law school, but I actually was debating between the law and a career in teaching, probably at the elementary level. My decision to attend law school was not a foregone conclusion and had a lot to do with whether I was likely to be drafted for the Vietnam War,” Steeh says, noting that his lottery number (347 out of 365) virtually assured that he would not be tabbed for military service.

His first job out of law school was as an assistant prosecutor in Genesee County, commuting from the north side of Ann Arbor for seven years. He worked for Prosecutor Robert Leonard, a one-time rising legal star who fell from grace in 1979 when he was convicted of embezzlement.

“That job taught me a lot, not only as a trial attorney and as an assistant prosecutor, but also about the scope of politics and the importance of upholding the public trust,” Steeh says. “It was an education every day I was there and some of the lessons I learned were not always easy to absorb.”

By all accounts, Steeh proved to be a quick study once on the bench, displaying a keen sense of understanding and fairness that would be tested during a particularly troublesome Macomb County murder case in which a student from Warren De La Salle High School was kicked to death by four teens from Sterling Heights Stevenson in a tragic 1991 altercation.

“It was a high profile case that attracted a lot of media attention because of the severity of the beating that they inflicted on the victim,” Steeh recalls. “Each defendant had to be tried separately and there was a tremendous public outcry for the most severe sentences possible. I had only been on the bench for a short time, but I couldn’t let the heat of the moment tip the scale when it came time for sentencing. I had to factor in the extent of each defendant’s involvement. It was a ‘Lord of the Flies’ type of mentality for the four defendants convicted in the case.”

Upon his appointment to the federal bench in 1998, Steeh would be faced with altogether different legal challenges, including a drawn-out case in which a suspect accused of plotting to kill a federal witness in 2005 was staring at the possibility of the death sentence if convicted of the crime.

“The death penalty request eventually was withdrawn, but the defendant was found guilty of being involved in the killing nearly six years after the murder took place,” Steeh explains. “It was a case that involved drug dealing, money laundering, a murder-for-hire scheme.”

In July 2010, Judge Steeh was back in the spotlight when he ruled in favor of Eastern Michigan University in a lawsuit filed by Julea Ward, a former student, who claimed that EMU discriminated against her based on her religion and violated her constitutional rights to free expression, due process, and equal protection. The suit stemmed from Ward’s expulsion from a master’s program in counseling at EMU after she declined to counsel a gay client on account of her Christian faith. The University eventually settled the case for $75,000 after Steeh’s decision had been appealed.

“It was a lawsuit that attracted national attention, as religious groups and those supporting gay and lesbian causes saw it as a case with potentially wide-ranging implications,” Steeh said.

The Detroit judge also presided over a nearly three-year case that pitted computer giant IBM against software developer Compuware, a legal battle in which Compuware alleged copyright infringement and antitrust law abuses by IBM.

“IBM responded to Compuware’s initial claims by filing several countersuits, alleging patent infringement,” Steeh related. “The case involved great lawyering on both sides.”

To such a degree that when the two companies eventually reached a $400 million settlement in 2005 it came at the cost of some $300 million in combined attorney fees, according to Steeh.

“It was costly, to say the least,” he said with a grin.

The stakes have been even higher in an ongoing case before Judge Steeh in which a number of Japanese companies have been fined for their involvement in a price-fixing and bid-rigging scandal.

Yazaki Corp. is just one of the defendants in the case, agreeing last year to pay a $470 million antitrust fine for conspiring to inflate prices on various automotive electrical components sold to manufacturers across the auto industry. Over the course of the last year, Steeh has imposed nearly a billion dollars in criminal fines on those companies implicated in the price fixing cases, the
largest amount recovered to date by the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department in such matters.

The case earning the greatest national attention among Steeh’s decisions was his October 7, 2010 opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act.  Because his was the first decision on the issue, an avalanche of commentary followed — both positive and negative. Steeh’s decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in June 2011, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the outcome in its landmark decision in July of 2012.

“For a while I got great reviews by The New York Times and was public enemy number one on Fox News,” Steeh said. “Fortunately, news cycles pass very fast and I was quickly replaced by others for media attention.”

Steeh, who also hears cases at the Federal Building in Ann Arbor, has a history of community and charitable involvement that “brings balance” to his legal responsibilities, he said. Former chair of the Macomb County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, Steeh was among the founders of the Child Advocacy Center of Macomb County. He also has been a longtime board member for the March of Dimes and is a past president of the Arab American Bar Association.

“The value of volunteer work has been ingrained in me from an early age,” said Steeh, who has a 37-year-old daughter, Laura. “My parents were great role models in that regard, always finding time to help others.”

He could say the same for several of his District Court colleagues, Judges Avern Cohn and Bernard Friedman, two jurists who took Steeh under their wings when he joined the federal bench.
“They were particularly helpful in that first year when I was getting my bearings,” Steeh said. “They have been great mentors, and I will always be grateful for their help and guidance.