Grand Traverse-Leelanau-Antrim Bar Association

January 2018 Newsletter

Feature Article:  Interview with Judge Stepka, 86th District Court

by Lori Schmeltzer, GTLA Governor

GTLA Governor Lori Schmeltzer interviewed Judge Michael S. Stepka to explore his practice preferences and more.  Get to know Judge Stepka.

Q: How do you prepare for a case over which you preside? 

A: I review cases well in advance of a hearing. If I have a particularly complex case or a case where the issues and law may be unfamiliar to me, I will spend any available time in the days before a hearing or trial reading briefs, case law, statutes, and evidentiary issues to be as familiar as possible with everything about the case.

Q: What are your courtroom pet peeves?

A:  Very few. However, lack of patience shown by others. It could be a lawyer, a litigant, witness, or myself (although I feel by nature I am pretty patient!). Being in court can be stressful and emotional for everyone. But we are all in the courtroom for the same reason: to obtain a fair and reasonable resolution to the issue that has brought us to court. By being patient with each other, not talking over someone else, and simply listening, a fair and just result will occur.

Q: What do you find most difficult?

A: I really enjoy what I do and look forward to coming to work every day. The most difficult thing has been listening to testimony of victims in crimes, particularly assaultive crimes, or a child witness testifying about an assaultive crime. What's difficult is knowing how hard it is for them to be in court before a judge, jury and others, and telling their experience to people they don't know. On the other hand, most such witnesses show amazing courage and strength.

Q: If you were not in the legal profession, what would you love to do for a living?

A: Be an architect.

Q: What do you do for pleasure?

A: I enjoy spending time with friends and family, downhill skiing, cycling, running, flyfishing, and reading. 

Q: Do you have any pet peeves for filing motions and briefs?

A: I really don't have any pet peeves with respect to motions or briefs except when a response to a motion is not filed or is filed very late. We are truly lucky to have such great lawyers in our area that motions and briefs usually contain the most current legal authority I need to decide matters. I really appreciate motions and briefs that clearly set forth current, on-point authority to help me decide an issue. 

Q: What practice by counsel do you enjoy or like to see?

A: I appreciate seeing attorneys that are well-prepared and present their case reasonably and methodically, acknowledge any weaknesses a case may have, and make practical and meaningful requests for rulings based on a realistic analysis of the facts of the case. 

Q: What differentiates a good lawyer from a great lawyer? 

A: I think all lawyers who I see do a really good job. Greatness, though, probably comes from experience, both time spent as a practitioner and thorough knowledge of an issue or point of law. Again, a lawyer just being straightforward, clear, and realistic in requests for decisions, rulings, and specific sentences, I feel, is a lawyer doing a great job. 

Q: Are there any other judges that you admire or consider mentors and why?

A: I admire most judges. Given the years of practice, running a firm, prosecuting cases (for those prosecutors who are now judges), and hard work before being fortunate to become a judge, and then doing a good job as a judge causes me to admire them. In terms of mentors, I look to judges I know well, and who have been on the bench for a long time, and who have taught and advised me both as a lawyer and as a judge. These mentors are Judge Thomas Phillips, Michael Haley, Philip Rodgers, Jr., Thomas Power, and William Brown. Each has taught me something valuable, given me advice, and each is always open to answering any questions I may have. 

Q: What is the most critical skill a judge should have?

A. There are many skills I think that a judge must have. The most important skills are to listen carefully, be reasonable and fair, and do the best possible work one can. 

Q: What do you do when you are faced with deciding a case that you think is a “tough call”?

A: When deciding an issue that I consider to be a "tough call," I feel I treat the issue like any other I decide. I review all pleadings and legal authority, ask the attorneys many questions, and after considering these things, make the best decision I feel I can make. 

Q: What are your top goals for your career as a judge?

A: To be the best District Court in Michigan. I want the court to use the latest technology to be as efficient and effective as possible in serving the public; I would like to continue to improve our specialty courts and bring our mental health court and veteran's courts back; and I will strive to do the best possible job as a judge that I can, which is my goal every day. 

Q: What do you absolutely hate doing?

A: Going to the dentist. 

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