Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett Is the County’s Legal Voice — From the Simple to the Supreme

Written by Katie Rosenberg

My very first interaction with Marathon County’s Corporation Counsel, Scott Corbett, was in 2011, right after I received a thick packet of legalese from a group who was suing me and the entire Marathon County Public Library Board in federal court. After dialing around, I eventually got to Scott’s office. He calmly told me that he was taking care of the matter and that all I had to do was a sign a document that he’d prepared for the Board. Scott recalled:

“That was my first introduction to Library Director Ralph Illick, and we’ve been friends ever since. I represent all of the County departments in their issues. I represent the Sheriff’s Department when they’re going to buy software. I represent the Parks Department when they’re going to buy property. I represent the Highway Department when they’ve got a salt vendor that they’re unhappy with. It’s very unglamorous work.”

I can tell you that the Corporation Counsel’s office is almost always busy. And it’s all important work.

If you walk into Scott’s office, you’ll find his desk covered in dozens — maybe hundreds — of legal pads full of his notes.

Marathon County Corporation Counsel Scott Corbett at his desk piled with legal pads, folders, state statutes, and resolutions. (Photo courtesy of Brad Karger.)

There are folders bursting with documents and books filled with State statutes, case law, and legal opinions. It’s a visual journey of Scott’s roles as Marathon County’s chief parliamentarian, head civil prosecutor, and number-one defender of due process. Scott reflected on his job:

“We’re taking children into custody. We’re placing people in an acute psychiatric care unit against their will. Due process. How do you interpret due process? How do you provide for the individual to receive due process? One of the issues we’re working on right now is that we have people who are on continuing commitment. There’s not really good case law on the matter.”

Scott recently had the opportunity that any legal enthusiast would geek out over: arguing before the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.

“I really did enjoy writing that. It’s an adrenaline rush to go to the Supreme Court.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court in Madison. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Lynch.)

In February, Scott argued Marathon County’s position on the Uniform Addressing ordinance. In a nutshell, the Town of Rib Mountain sued Marathon County because Town officials disagreed about whether the County has the jurisdiction to mandate address changes. Marathon County, with Scott as the lead interpreter of State statute, argues that the County can indeed authorize new addresses:

“Counties can only do what counties are permitted to do by statute. One of the statues says you can create a rural naming and numbering system for the purposes of improving fire protection, emergency services, and civil defense. That’s the purpose of creating that power in the County to establish the system. It says clearly that you can establish it in towns. Cities and villages are exempt because they have their own ability to create ordinances.”

Scott anticipates hearing back from the Supreme Court Justices sometime in April. In the meantime, he’ll continue working through the civil cases that come through his office

Wisconsin Supreme Court courtroom prepared for the Marathon County Uniform Addressing case. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Lynch.)

So, how did Scott get interested in practicing law in the first place?

An Appleton native, Scott went to college at Lawrence University with the intention of majoring in economics. But as he progressed, he developed a love of writing and history and ended up graduating with an English degree. From there, he enrolled in law school at the University of North Dakota, where he met his wife, Liz. Scott reminisced:

“She grew up on a wheat farm in North Dakota. She went to undergrad at Creighton and then went back to go to law school in North Dakota. We met because were seated right next to each other in Uniform Commercial Code class. Romance was in the air.”

Things were getting serious by the time Scott and Liz graduated from law school. Liz was hired at the Northwest Minnesota Legal Services out of Morehead, MN, while Scott was talking with a private practitioner in North Dakota who wanted him to join him and become a law firm partner. Scott recalled:

“I didn’t know if I was ready for that type of commitment to small town law in North Dakota. But Liz had clerked for a little firm in Cando, ND, about 25 miles from where she grew up and suggested that I call those guys [instead]. . . . So I called them up and they said, ‘We need some help but we’re not really looking for somebody long-term. . . .’ So, my first job out of law school was to go there.”

Scott said that it was a great gig because the firm had a great reputation and worked on every type of case that came through the door. Plus, he had the opportunity to get to know Liz’s family better since he was so close.

“I was 25 miles away from where Liz grew up, and one day her dad called me and said, ‘How would you like to rest your big mind and come and work on the farm after work?’ I said sure because I thought that would be kind of fun.”

For one year, Scott worked at the law firm during the day and on the family farm for Liz’s dad in the evenings. Although he had grown up in Wisconsin, Scott was not a farm kid, so he wasn’t sure what to expect. But once he started, he figured out that it was less about the work and more about the work ethic.

“I showed up for my first day of work at the farm, and her dad came out of the house and he’s carrying a jumpsuit and he goes, ‘Here! Put this on.’ Then he explained the task, ‘We’re gonna drive out into the fields and when I stop, you’re going to hop out and run behind the truck. If you see a rock that’s the size of a pineapple or bigger, you’re going to pick the rock up and throw it in the back of the pickup truck.’ I was 27-years-old, not 17. I knew this was a test. I knew he was trying to see what I would be willing to do. So we drove out there, and I’m running along in this jumpsuit picking up rocks and throwing them in the back of this old pickup truck.”

Needless to say, Scott passed the test.

After marrying, he and Liz made their way to Central Wisconsin in the 1980s. Scott worked for a private firm in Marshfield while Liz commuted to Wausau to work for Wisconsin Judicare. Then, in 1990, the Corbetts were expecting their first child, so Scott started looking for something closer to Wausau. At the same time, Wisconsin had legalized the lottery and one of the uses for the proceeds was to supplement the pay of Assistant District Attorneys. That meant that the responsibilities of the Assistant Attorneys were being standardized all over the State.

During that standardization process, State legislators removed several types of cases from District Attorney workloads, such as civil mental commitments under chapter 51 and prosecution of paternity cases. Legislators told counties that if they had a need for that type of work, they should hire additional Assistant Corporation Counsels. So around that particular year, many counties — including Marathon County — hired extra Assistant Corporation Counsels.

Scott was hired and worked under two Marathon County Corporation Counsels before earning the position himself in 2008.

He says that some things have changed under his tenure . . . His predecessor, Tom Finley, used to dress up as Santa Claus at the December Marathon County Board meeting and hand out popcorn balls to all of the Board Supervisors. (But tell me, does anyone really do popcorn balls during the holidays anymore?)

Scott’s department has also grown, in part due to the influx in opioid- and meth-related cases. Yet Scott says that some things haven’t changed, thanks in part to the level of trust that Tom cultivated with the Board and other County departments:

“I inherited a situation from Tom that was very favorable. They liked Tom; they trusted what he said. He lived this idea that if you just give me a chance to research a question, I’ll try to come back to you with a meaningful answer. I inherited that spirit from the Board, and I think I’ve always been the beneficiary of that.”

Yes, a great deal has changed since Scott first started his legal career. But some things haven’t changed much at all . . .

Scott is still passionate about serving his clients’ needs, and he fully realizes that his work is vital and meaningful, if not glamorous. Applying the law to provide for the safety and well-being of children and people with an addiction or mental illness can change the trajectory of his clients’ lives.

Scott says he’s seen other lawyers burn out and leave the field. That’s why he appreciates his Marathon County practice. The range of duties is wide — no two days are ever the same; the work environment is certainly more relaxed than in a button-down corporate law firm; and Scott can see the difference he makes helping people in need.

The workload can be rough at times, but it’s nothing that a guy who built a hunting cabin with his father without using a single power tool — or who started his farming career pickin’ up pineapple-sized rocks while chasing after a pickup truck — can’t handle!

It’s evident from talking with Scott for this story that he takes great pride in doing his job well. The only thing he’s prouder of than his work:

His family.

Scott with his wife, Elizabeth; his son, Ian; and his daughter, Stephanie. (Photo courtesy of Scott Corbett).

He still goes back to North Dakota to visit and hunt with his in-laws, often bringing his son, daughter, and new son-in-law along for some family togetherness — something Scott clearly cherishes.

Most of all, Scott has gratitude for the support of his family and of all the people he works with at the County and North Central Health Care, who share his commitment to quality work and service to the residents of Marathon County.

Katie Rosenberg - County Board Supervisor District No. 1

Katie Rosenberg

Marathon County Board Supervisor |  District 1

Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup.  Email Katie Rosenberg. 

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