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McGarity set aspirations on the bench from early on in her career

(Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

(Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Margaret Dee McGarity had no idea as a young lawyer that her volunteerism would open so many doors.

In 1979, McGarity was appointed to a committee charged with studying a potential marital property statute in Wisconsin. That committee work broadened her knowledge on a timely topic. It led to multiple public-speaking engagements, which improved her litigations skills.

Once the law passed, she and others on the committee wrote the State Bar’s “Marital Property Law in Wisconsin.” She later became a co-author of “Collier Family Law and the Bankruptcy Code.”

These days, she’s still updating those books and writing articles, in addition to frequent travels to conferences across the U.S., where she teaches about the interplay between divorce and bankruptcy.

It helps her maintain her strong enthusiasm for the bankruptcy court judgeship in the Eastern District of Wisconsin that she has held for 24 years.

McGarity, the first woman judge in the Eastern District, drew a significant case not long into her appointment, Farrey v. Sanderfoot, 500 U.S. 591, (1991).

“It was the second decision I ever wrote, and it ended up going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” she recalled. “I decided the case. I was reversed by the district court. They were affirmed by the Seventh Circuit. And the U.S. Supreme Court reversed them, 9 to nothing. Vindicated!”

Several years later, in the P.A. Bergner bankruptcy, McGarity entered the largest judgment of her judicial career, $37.5 million, in a preference action. It was affirmed by the Seventh Circuit.

More recently, she said, In Re Morgan, 286 B.R. 678 (Bankr. E.D. Wis. 2002), was a career highlight. “I’m always citing it because it was like the perfect storm of the disasters that can come from community property in bankruptcy.”

Not long after McGarity started law school in 1971, she set her aspirations on the bench.

She said judging suits her personality. She was an advocate for many years, arguing black or white. “But I am more comfortable in the gray areas, where I can look at the entire situation and hopefully solve the problem.”

Milwaukee attorney Barbara Burbach, a friend since law school and former law partner, said McGarity’s “keen intellect is superseded only by her wisdom and congeniality.”

McGarity is a talented quilter in her free time, who also teaches sewing to residents at Meta House in Milwaukee, a treatment facility for women struggling with addictions.

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