2022 Hour Detroiters: Barb McQuade Is Conducting a Surprising Second Act

The former U.S. Attorney, who makes our annual list of people making Motown a better place, has gone from the Underwear Bomber trial to MSNBC fame to podcast stardom
Barb McQuade
Former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade

Barb McQuade is as surprised as anyone else by the turn her life has taken since former President Donald Trump forced her to quit her job, as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. The gig as a University of Michigan Law School professor is a somewhat predictable next act, but her ascent to national media stardom? “One thing just led to another,” she muses.

Losing her post wasn’t a shock; presidents usually purge the top prosecutors appointed by predecessors of a different party. But the onset of the Trump administration brought forth a litany of legal dilemmas and questions — and McQuade, 57, quickly became such a regular, popular presence on MSNBC, that the liberal cable news network hired her as an on-air contributor and columnist.

In 2021, she added yet another moniker: podcast host. She launched #SistersInLaw, in March, with three other MSNBC legal analysts: Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr, former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, and brooch aficionado Jill Wine-Banks — the only woman on the Watergate prosecution team. Their hourlong dissections of the week’s law-related news also gives McQuade a chance to reveal little-known tidbits about her own life. Listeners have heard much about her die-hard devotion to the Lions and the Michigan Wolverines; her husband, also a federal attorney, who had to work out of the Toledo, Ohio, office while she was a U.S. prosecutor, to avoid nepotism issues; her various experiences testifying before Congress; and her most high-profile case, the prosecution of the “Underwear Bomber,” a Nigerian terrorist who tried to sabotage a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, on Christmas 2009.

While she openly progressive, she is also meticulous, in her legal analyses on TV and elsewhere, in her avoidance of political rants. “I’m explaining complicated legal concepts, to help people to make their own educated assessments,” she says. “I see it as an extension of my teaching work, and I find it very rewarding.”

She’d rather take action than be mired in the left-right fray, she says. In May 2021, bouncing off her dismay about the 2020 murder of George Floyd, by a Minneapolis cop, McQuade established the Community Policing Innovations Initiative. The program provides grants to police departments, for training programs on how to improve interactions with communities of color.

Dozens of regional departments have expressed interest — and 10 have, thus far, shared $500,000 in grants — a reflection of the credibility McQuade built in her seven years as U.S. attorney. “Because of my law enforcement background, I’ve spent a lot of time with police chiefs and know that, while there are officers who aren’t in it for the public’s best interest, most care deeply about serving their communities the best they can,” she says.

And there’s more to come, this year. In 2022, the organization will evaluate the impact of its first round of grants, by measuring reductions in crime and civilian lawsuits against police departments. If the data indicate success, McQuade plans to dole out even more grants to public safety departments across southeast Michigan.

As for her own future, McQuade has no plans to return to the judicial system and has rebuffed efforts to encourage a run for public office. “Politics requires too many compromises and too much energy spent defending yourself from false, frivolous, and ill-intentioned allegations,” she says. Instead, she’s sticking to the tried and Blue: “For now, I’m enjoying the work I’m doing at the University of Michigan.”

This story is part of the 2022 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2022 issue here.