The end of an era

The district attorney who wrote the book on long careers is entering his final chapter, and he plans to set his epilogue at Marquette.

Thirty-eight years after being elected to the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office, E. Michael McCann, the longest-serving DA of any major metropolitan area, will not seek reelection when his term ends in December. Instead, he will assume a fellowship position at the Marquette School of Law.

McCann has his critics, but not in significant enough numbers to keep him from being reelected 19 times. He has had a long career, but on a recent warm April morning, McCann expressed few regrets and much amazement at the changes made in the criminal justice system during his tenure.

Called to serve

McCann graduated from Harvard in 1963 after studying law at Georgetown University. He was on the "$600 tour of Europe" with a plan to work at the upscale law firm of Whyte Hirshboeck Dudek SC when he got back to Milwaukee when his mother contacted him through American Express — "This was before cell phones and e-mail," he said. When he called her from a payphone in the Munich train station, she told him then-DA William McAuley had offered him the position of assistant DA.

"It had never crossed my mind," McCann recalls. "So I asked him to hold it for a few weeks."

McCann decided to put Whyte Hirschboeck on hold for 15 months so he could give the district attorney's office a try. McAuley persuaded him because he was the only job interviewer whose values accorded with McCann's.

"He was the only person who mentioned justice," he said. "I joined the law school with a desire for justice, and that had abated little."

Although he left the DA's office and went into private practice as planned, McCann eventually left Whyte Hirshboeck after a year and a half — "I was very happy with the people, but not the work" — and successfully ran for DA in 1968.

Though he ran for a judgeship with Children's Court in 1968, before his run for district attorney, he hasn't run for a judgeship or any other office since.

Now, he has served for two decades more than the next longest-serving Milwaukee DA, McAuley.

An ongoing issue

McCann would know about tough choices and community-divisive cases. A few days before this interview, downtown echoed with the cries of an estimated 1,000 protesters. They were incensed at the acquittal of three of the five police officers accused of beating Frank Jude Jr., a biracial man, while they were off-duty at a party. McCann had brought charges against the police officers.

McCann is an affable man and speaks openly and at length about any topic, it seems. Indeed, his smooth patter falters only once, at the mention of the Jude trial.

When asked if he was disappointed with the outcome, McCann's white eyebrows jump.

"Of course," he said simply.

"It troubled the community deeply, it was extremely divisive," he later elaborated, adding that the police department's "wall of silence," which he considered a hindrance to the trial, "is a local problem and a national problem."

Although McCann could not wrangle a conviction from the jury, his office is collaborating with U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic on possible federal charges against the men.

Faith in action

Difficult decisions also arise when McCann, a parishioner of Gesu Church, tries to balance his role as the public's protector of justice with the sense of mercy arising from his deep Catholic faith.

"It's tough because public safety is accountable," he said. "But the offender often has a family. He has a role in society."

The balancing act between those two competing values is often answered for McCann by law and protocol.

"You've got to call it as the law sees it," he said. "And as I call it, I try and look for the grace of God."

McCann's philosophy tends to look more lightly on nonviolent property crime.

"If somebody shoots somebody, yes, they should be locked up," he said. "But property crimes and other offenses are a little bit of a gray area."

A campus asset

McCann's oversight during an era of many changes in the criminal justice field combined with his experience and legal expertise will make him a valuable addition to Marquette, according to law professor Daniel Blinka.

"He's going to be an asset not just to the law school, but to the whole Marquette community," Blinka said. "Mike has generously agreed to join the faculty and provide us with his insights and experience without compensation. We anticipate that he will be lecturing on various public and criminal topics of interest."

McCann will also use his time at Marquette to "assemble his personal papers," Blinka said. McCann also said he plans to work on a book about "the heart of a DA."

"I'm delighted to be going to Marquette," McCann said. "I have great affection for it."

McCann describes himself as a "gung-ho MU fan" and frequently attends basketball games. Many of his staff members are Marquette law graduates, he said, and he himself earned three undergraduate credits of philosophy during a summer in the late 1950s.

Support and dissent

To be sure, McCann has his critics. He was criticized by some for being tardy in charging the Democratic party members who slashed the tires of vans the Republican party planned to use to get supporters to the voting booths, and his passionate courtroom antics have raised more than a few eyebrows. He is also a favorite target of AM Radio personality Charlie Sykes.

Milwaukee attorney Gerald Boyle ran against McCann in 1968 but lost in the primary. He said he and McCann are good friends despite running against each other.

"He's been the best district attorney in the state of Wisconsin and one of the premiere district attorneys in the U.S." Boyle said. "He was the man for the job. I was not."

"He's one of the best district attorneys in the U.S." Blinka said. "He has a national reputation that is easily overlooked because he's been here so long."