Late Judge Zatkoff personified professionalism, civility, colleague says
By Jameson Cook, The Macomb Daily
Posted: 01/26/15, 1:04 PM EST | Updated: 49 mins ago
The late federal court Judge Lawrence Zatkoff was the consummate jurist, according to longtime colleague Judge George Steeh III.
"Professionalism and civility, he personified that," Steeh said Monday.
Zatkoff, a St. Clair Shores resident, died Thursday following an extended illness. He was 75.
"He was a great guy, a great judge and ran a very efficient courtroom," Steeh said. "He expected lawyers to be prepared, and he expected a great deal of civility. He expected excellence from attorneys and pretty much got it.
"All of us who knew him are grateful for the chance to work with him and appreciate what he brought to the profession as a whole. We're all going to miss him."
Longtime friend and former colleague J. Russell LaBarge Jr., a Harper Woods-based attorney, said he was "shocked and saddened" by Zatkoff's passing. He said Zatkoff combined a high intellect with the "common touch."
"I could call him for advice at any time," he said. "He really did keep in touch with his Macomb County roots. I will definitely miss him."
A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Bloomfield Hills. Visitation is 4 to 8 p.m. today and 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Kaul Funeral Home in St. Clair Shores.
Zatkoff was appointed to the federal bench in 1986 by president Ronald Reagan, after serving on the Macomb County bench for eight years. He served as chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan from January 1999 to June 2004, overseeing 25 jurists.
Steeh praised his colleague's tenure as chief.
"He was a great public speaker, a great communicator, a great representative of the Bar, the bench and the community," he said. "He articulated our needs very effectively and worked well with individual judges as well."
He was one of only two federal judges from Macomb County over the past 35 years or more. Steeh, now 68, was appointed to the bench in 1998.
LaBarge Jr. said he met Zatkoff in 1969 when Zatkoff and LaBarge's late father formed LaBarge and Zatkoff, based at the Roseville Theatre, which later added another partner, the late attorney Tom Dinning.
"My father saw something in him," LaBarge said. "He was a brilliant attorney. He had a very sharp mind."
He recalled learning about "monumental arguments" between Zatkoff and attorney Bernard Fieger, Geoffrey Fieger's father, in the 1970s during labor negotiations between Roseville schools and the teachers union.
Over the years, "his reputation grew stronger and stronger," LaBarge said.
He became a Macomb Probate Court judge in 1978 and became a Macomb Circuit Court judge in 1982.
On the federal bench, Zatkoff received one of the best honors late in his career, about eight years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court praised him in affirming his ruling, and reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals, in a ruling over patents, Steeh said.
In 2004, Zatkoff re-established having a federal judge sit at the courthouse in Port Huron.
Zatkoff's two favorite hobbies were fishing and antique cars, LaBarge said. For a time he owned "acreage" in Richmond Township where he kept old vehicles in a barn, he said.
Zatkoff was born in Detroit and moved to St. Clair Shores, graduating from South Lake High School. He earned a bachelor's degree at University of Detroit in 1962 and a law degree from Detroit College of Law while also working full time at Chrysler.
He taught at Detroit College of Law from 1968 to 1969 and was an associate government appeal agent for the Selective Service Administration from 1969 to 1972.
As a federal judge, he served on the Judicial Conference of the United States, including a term as chairman of the Committee on Judicial Security.
Zatkoff is survived by his wife, Kelly, children, Catherine (Mike), Joseph and Mary Elizabeth; and grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws. He was preceded in death by his son, Lawrence Jr.
PS It needs to be mentioned that Judge Zatkoff and former Fraser VFW Post 6691 commander, Nelson Amsdil were instrumental in starting the MIA/POW movement in 1975 when they went to Paris to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for the return of Air Force Major, Robert F. Tucci an unaccounted for F-4 pilot shot down over Laos. Tucci was listed a POW for many years after until his remains were discovered.