Michael J. McCabe – Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Until Michael J. McCabe retired at the beginning of 2011, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District had never had another director of legal services in its history.
At one time, three separate districts in the metro area made up what is now the district, and the Milwaukee City Attorney represented one of the three. As an assistant city attorney, McCabe was assigned to handle a massive lawsuit brought by the State of Illinois, alleging that the discharge of untreated sewage violated federal law.
Although the city lost in the trial court after a six-month trial, the judgment was unanimously reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Milwaukee v. Illinois, 451 U.S. 304 (1981). The Supreme Court held that 1972 amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act had eliminated the federal courts’ authority to create standards more stringent than those imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 1978, the sewer district decided it needed its own attorney, and McCabe was named the first director of legal services for the district. He was the only attorney in the office. The office now has six attorneys.
The office deals with complex litigation in a variety of fields. Obviously, one of the largest is environmental law.
The office also negotiates construction contracts and handles construction litigation. And with more than 350 employees at the sewer district, employment law also comprises a good amount of the legal department’s work.
As a governmental body, the legal department also deals with issues facing any government, such as condemnation, rulemaking, public records and meetings, and taxes.
Asked how he kept track of such a wide array of law, McCabe first said, “Hire good staff.” He also paid particular attention to certain areas, such as permits, lawsuits by the state or environmental groups, and negotiating construction contracts.
As legal director, McCabe also led the district during what are known as the “Sewer Wars,” a 13-year legal battle that pitted Milwaukee County communities against suburbs in neighboring counties also served by the district over how to pay for improvements. The litigation eventually settled with the outlying suburbs paying more than $140 million to the district.
McCabe doesn’t have firm plans since leaving the district at the beginning of this year, but says he plans to stay involved in public service, in addition to enjoying hobbies that include opera, theater, skiing and painting.