Judge to bid farewell to district court bench

  By Paul Janczewski

 

Legal News

Larry J. Stecco’s legal career began in 1967, and he’s spent the last 17 years as a 67th District Court judge for Mt. Morris in Genesee County.

 

And that’s not too shabby for a guy who doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree.
But Stecco, who turns 73 in July and must relinquish his seat on the bench due to age-limit restrictions, said he will make the best of it.
“Maybe I’ll go back (to college) and (obtain my degree) now that I have some time,” he joked.
With his last days wearing the black robe drawing to “where-did-the-time-go” close, Stecco said his career in the legal community was something he’s always wanted. He was born in Flint, and said he always wanted to become an attorney, even though no one in his family was in law. 
“It was always either a lawyer or a doctor, or a lawyer or a psychiatrist, or a lawyer or a teacher, as far back as I can remember,” he said.
One incident in elementary school in Flint stood out to him as a primary factor in his decision. One boy had an altercation with Stecco’s sister, so Stecco’s brother got into it with that boy. Then that boy’s older brother got into it with Stecco’s brother, so Stecco fought that boy’s older brother.
To settle the dispute, the school’s principal put Stecco, a fourth-grader, and the others “on trial,” and used the first grade class as the jury. Of course, the principal was the prosecutor, and after the mock trial, the principal’s closing argument was “I think they’re all guilty, don’t you, children?”
All were guilty, except Stecco’s sister.
When Stecco was in the eighth grade, the family moved to Flushing, into a house built by his father. He graduated from Flushing High School in 1959. Although he played football and ran track, a scholarship opportunity to play football at Colorado State fell through when he sustained a knee injury.
But his involvement with politics as president of the Student Council, performing in plays in high school and being a photographer for the school yearbook “made me comfortable in front of a group,” and helped gain confidence later as an attorney. After graduation, he attended the old Flint Junior College, now Mott Community College, and later Western Michigan University. Stecco then transferred to Wayne State University, and earned a spot on the dean’s list, majoring in political science, history and psychology.
“But I didn’t finish anywhere,” he said. 
Back then, Stecco explained, if students after three years of college earned a 3.5 grade point average or better, and scored high enough on the law school admittance test, they could attend law school in their fourth year of college.
“It was a rarity, at that time,” Stecco said.
So Stecco went to law school at the Detroit College of Law, because he could get in early and start attending classes. 
“Basically, I had seven years of college,” he said.
He received his law degree in 1967, and then worked briefly for a law firm in Detroit before moving back to practice in Flint.
“Then a cousin encouraged me to apply for a job in the Genesee County Prosecutor’s office,” said Stecco, who was hired by former Prosecutor Robert Leonard in 1968. “I loved it,” he said. “That was the most fun I ever had working.”
Stecco said there, he was “in the middle of everything.” Leonard created some programs that were recognized nationwide, such as a consumers protection unit, and the forerunner of what now is called deferred prosecution, and the first citizens’ grand jury.
Stecco handled major felony cases, was named chief of the Organized Crime Anti-Racketeering Division, and served as special prosecutor for a grand jury.
“It was really an exciting great place to work, and I was in court a lot,” he said. “The law is pretty broad, but trial work is a little more special, and to me, that’s where the law is. And it helped me become a better judge.”
In 1972, Stecco and a number of assistant prosecutors quit because that office was viewed as a stepping-stone for private practice and pay was not commensurate with the work with and there was no union protection.
He started a general practice firm with Don Wascha and Arthalu Eakin (Lancaster), who later became a 67th District Court judge. But the business end of the practice was maddening for Stecco, who had a difficult time collecting money from poor clients. 
Sometimes he and a partner didn’t get paid, although they made sure their secretary did. Later, Stecco and Wascha hooked up with another firm, working on personal injury cases. At one trial, Stecco recalled arguing with a judge over jury instructions. The judge chided him, saying “Mr. Stecco, those are the same instructions I gave all those years while you sat there as a prosecutor.” Stecco replied, “I know, but I hear differently now.”
Stecco decided to go back to public service, so he ran for a District Court seat and lost. But in 1996, Stecco again ran for the 67th District Court and won. 
He said his most satisfying part of being a judge is heading the Sobriety Court, which melds treatment and punishment of those charged with drunken driving. 
“You keep seeing those people week after week, and literally you can see a change in them,” he said. “Physically, they look more alive, and you can see those changes.”
Like all judges, Stecco has seen his share of horrendous cases, human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. But what bothered him the most was when the housing crisis hit, and people lost their homes. 
“That was really painful, and it grinds on you,” he said.
Stecco has received a number of honors through his distinguished career. He was elected to serve on the board of directors of the Michigan Association of Drug Court Professionals. He’s been active in the Genesee County Bar Association and is a past president, and has served on numerous community service boards. He’s been president of the Flint Trial Lawyers Association, and also served as Chief Judge Pro Tem of the 67th District Court.
But he’s touched primarily by a plaque given to him from two people he had in court years earlier who thanked him for turning their lives around. Stecco also had a wonderful time playing Santa Claus at the annual Genesee Bar community Christmas party, where hundreds of needy families showed up for a free dinner and gifts for their children.
“Those are the memories of how you affect people that stand out the most,” he said.
Stecco has always been known as a self-described ham, and has appeared in several local community plays and bar association events, poking fun at himself and other close friends in the legal community. For fun, he enjoys travel, photography, reading and attending sporting events for his seven grandchildren. He has three children from a previous marriage, and is involved in a long time relationship. He’s survived heart bypass surgery, and is an avid walker. He has no immediate plans post-retirement. 
“I’ll stay in our vacation spot a little longer than usual, and decide when we get back,” he said. “I’ll do something, but right now I just don’t know what that is.”
Stecco, 73, said he will miss those in the Genesee County legal community and his staff. 
“I’ve had cases all around, and I’ve never seen a better legal community, judges, lawyers and others, who treat you and each other with respect and dignity. Genesee County is just an amazing place to practice law.”
Stecco said he’s noticed himself getting a little more emotional now that retirement from the bench is six months away. 
His legacy? 
“Just remember me as a nice guy, a fair judge. And maybe as a handsome stud?”

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