Judicial acts: Judge finds his comfort zone on stage

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

The next time you see Larry J. Stecco, make sure you tell him to break a leg.

But don't worry about the repercussions. As a 68th District Court Judge in Genesee County for more than a dozen years, Stecco likely has heard much worse.

Stecco, 68, recently appeared in a play with a local semi-professional group. It was his first acting gig since high school, but, in the past, Stecco has been known to appear in drag, mocking another retired judge good-naturedly at a surprise birthday party, and also appearing in a video at a recent Christmas party for court staff.

"There's a bit of a ham in me," Stecco said. "It was all in fun."

In a twist of an old television commercial, Stecco may be a real judge in the courtroom, but plays something else on the stage.

But being an attorney was something he's wanted to be as far back as he can remember.

"No one in my family was a lawyer," Stecco said during a recent interview. "But an aunt told me I should be an attorney because I liked to argue."

Stecco was born in Flint and attended elementary school there until his family moved to nearby Flushing when he was in the eighth grade. The house was built by hand by his father, with help from cousins and brothers.

But the lawyer bug got into Stecco during an incident at the Flint elementary school. One kid had beaten up his sister. It may have been nothing more than pushing her down - the facts escape Stecco now. But in retaliation, Stecco's brother got into it with the boy. Then that boy's older brother got into it with Stecco's brother.

"So I beat up that older brother," he said.

To settle the mess, the elementary school principal put Stecco, then in about the fourth grade, and others "on trial" in the school library. And for the jury, the principal picked the first grade class. And the principal persuaded the jury to convict the kids on the trumped-up charge.

"It was a farce," Stecco said. "But we were all found guilty, except for my sister."

Stecco carried that experience with him, and held on to the dream of being an attorney. After graduating from Flushing High School in 1959, where he lettered in football and track, was a photographer for the school year book and was student council president, Stecco attended the old Flint Junior College for two years. While there, he was involved in student government and was a photographer for the student newspaper and the audio-visual department. He later transferred to Western Michigan University, and also attended Wayne State University, earning a place on the academic dean's list. Stecco majored in political science, history, and psychology while attending college.

Stecco then moved on to the Detroit College of Law, obtaining his degree in 1967. After graduating, he worked briefly for a law firm in Detroit before moving back to Flint and hooking up with a law firm. But in 1968, Stecco was hired in the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office.

"I wanted to get trial experience," he said.

He handled many major felony cases, and was soon named Chief of the Organized Crime Anti-Racketeering Division. Stecco also served as a Special Prosecutor for a grand jury.

"It was the most fun I ever had working anywhere," Stecco said of his time in the prosecutor's office. "We were right in the middle of everything."

It was also where Stecco said he learned the most, from the chief prosecutor and judges.

"As a lawyer, you learn to be comfortable in a court room. I had great mentors."

In 1972, Stecco and a number of assistant prosecutors quit the office. None of those assistants had union protection, and pay was not appropriate to qualifications, which meant that getting good career attorneys and keeping them in the office was next to impossible back then.

Stecco left and started up a general practice firm with some other attorneys, Don Wascha and Arthalu Eakin (Lancaster). Later, Lancaster also became a 68th District Court judge. But Stecco was learning a hard truth about the business.

"Besides practicing law, you had to be a business person, and that meant collecting money from clients," he said.

Many of their clients were not well off financially, and Stecco said he had a difficult time asking for money.

"I couldn't get tough enough," he said. "It's very difficult to ask people for money, but you have to do it," he said.

Stecco said one of his partners was almost as bad as he was when it came to collecting for the firm.

"There were a lot of times where we didn't get paid," Stecco said. "But we'd pay our secretary."

Stecco and Wascha later became partners in another firm, with one of the top personal injury attorneys in the area.

"I loved personal injury practice," Stecco said. "You worked in trials, you were helping people, and you were paid a percentage of what was recovered."

Stecco had years earlier ran for a seat on the District Court bench, but was too unknown to voters and "really, I did not have enough experience," he said. In 1993, he applied for a seat on the U.S. District Court, but was not selected. But in 1996, Stecco ran again for a seat on the 68th District Court, covering Mount Morris Township, and won.

Stecco said his work in the prosecutor's office and private practice paid off later. He credits his 13 years on the bench to those early years.

"Being a judge is great," he said. "I love it. But it sometimes lacks the excitement and tension of trial work."

He said it was tough early on being a judge.

"I was a trial lawyer, but you change your perspective," he said.

Stecco considered himself a "liberal 1960s guy" who wanted to change the world. As people grow, those expectations occasionally take a hit. But Stecco said "as a judge, if you can change little pieces here and there, you're doing well."

He said now, he really enjoys trying cases.

"When you get two really good lawyers, it's fun to watch and be a part of," Stecco said.

One thing Stecco does not like is the repetitive parts, and the volume of cases.

"Sometimes, I feel like I'm just repeating things." Stecco does his best to give criminal defendants every benefit of the doubt, before reaching the final straw. "By the time I send someone to jail, they really deserved it," he said.

One of his most rewarding accomplishments is Sobriety Court, which melds treatment and punishment of those charged with drunken driving. The participants are required to attend monthly sessions, often on a Sunday, so as not to interfere with work. Slowly, participants are made to report progress, but can obtain help and guidance along the way from a number of community agencies. In the end, they stay out of jail, but many learn the errors of their earlier ways. Recidivism is greatly reduced, less of these people are placed into already overcrowded jails, and the community is better off financially because of that. Also, participants pay to attend sobriety court.

"That's the one place where I can see I really make a difference," Stecco said.

Here's another place Stecco made a difference, years ago. In fact, without his input, the play could not go on.

"In high school, I was a curtain-puller," he said. Stecco was also in a play there, and even remembered his lines from a role he played in "Casanova Junior."

But as far as acting chops gained in his youth, that was it. But like he said earlier, Stecco is a bit of a ham. In May, he and others put together a surprise birthday party for retired Genesee County Circuit Judge Robert M. Ransom, and filmed several bits for a video.

Stecco's act consisted of putting on a wig and robe and mimicking Ransom's s-s-s-l-l-l-o-o-o-w-w-w, deliberate speech pattern while answering questions from a moderator. In the end, Stecco-as-Ransom took off his judicial robe and revealed black nylon stockings and a lacy nightie -- a judge in drag.

Politically incorrect? You bet. But it was a crowd-pleaser.

Stecco had also gone to a number of plays at Flint's Masonic Temple, put on by Ted Valley, executive artistic producer and director of Vertigo Theatrics, a semi-professional theater group using local talent.

"I love going to plays," Stecco said. He got to know Valley, who helped with the Ransom spoof.

In December, Stecco had an idea for a spoof for life at the courthouse and enlisted Valley to help him put on a short video using Stecco, Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell and his deputy, Eric Kerns, and Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton.

"We started talking, and developed it into a bigger production," Stecco said.

In the video, Kerns leads in a group of men chained at the waist wearing orange jail jumpsuits. Soon, the group is rocking and dancing while pantomiming a few songs that appear to be greatly enjoyed by Stecco as he sits on the bench.

It was shown to many in of the court staff, and they loved it. But soon, a part in a play Valley was producing for Vertigo fell through, and Stecco was tagged as a fill-in by Valley.

"He thought I could do it," Stecco said. "These people (Vertigo's core of actors) are good. You can stay right here in Flint and see a quality play. You don't have to drive to Detroit and pay a ton of money."

Valley said after meeting Stecco and knowing him for some time, he got "good vibes" and believed Stecco could pull it off.

The play was scheduled for late January for five viewings. Called "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," the Neil Simon play focuses on Mel, who has a nervous breakdown after he and his wife lose their jobs. More woes beset the couple -- their apartment is burglarized, Mel's psychiatrist dies after taking his client's cash, the air pollution worsens and gas price continue to rise.

Stecco plays Mel's brother, Harry, in the play, and his role is third in lines, after Mel and his wife.

"I didn't realize the part was that big at first," Stecco said. "I questioned Ted if I could do it and play that role because it was so much bigger than I would have thought it to be," Stecco said. He also worried about how his novice performance would affect the other actors. "I worried that I might screw it up for these other people who put all this work into it."

To prep for his role, Stecco read his lines every night before going to sleep. He also had a few rehearsals with the entire crew. Ironically, Stecco said the hardest part was positioning yourself on stage to make sure you deliver the lines while facing the audience.

And he was told to be very demonstrative with his voice and gestures. "You feel like you're over-acting," he said.

"But the lines and inflection were not as hard," he said. Still, he said it was harder than it appears to the people watching. "You develop a lot of respect for how hard it really is."

Stecco said his first performance "was rocky." But it got better as the play progressed, and subsequent performances felt more natural, Stecco said. "You just immerse yourself into the role," he said. "You gotta be in the moment."

He said it helped being an attorney who tried cases before a judge and jury, and a judge, who always has something to say during any type of hearing.

Valley said Stecco was "doing great."

"He's a natural." Valley said the Stecco you see in the play is not the Stecco you might face in court. "His off-the-bench persona is not as stern. I'd love to have him back for future roles," Valley said. "He gave me more credit (for directing and helping) than he gives himself (for acting)."

Mark Bonto, the lead character who plays Mel, has been a local actor for more than 40 years. He gave Stecco great grades in the play.

"He's doing very well, for being so green," Bonto said. "He was very comfortable to be with on stage."

"He was a bit nervous at first, but he incorporated it into his character," Bonto said. "He is a lot of fun to work with."

Stecco said he is unsure if he will appear in more plays, but does not rule out the possibility. "It's a lot of work, and takes time and commitment," he said.

For now, he believes he's a better judge than an actor. "Oh, I'd better be a better judge. If I'm not, I should quit."

Published: Mon, Mar 8, 2010

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