About the Wisconsin State Public Defender

The Wisconsin State Public Defender’s mission is to promote justice throughout Wisconsin by providing compassionate, high-quality legal services, protecting individual rights, and advocating for a fair and rational criminal justice system.

The Wisconsin State Public Defender is an independent agency charged by Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 977 with providing legal representation to indigent clients in criminal and certain civil cases.  It was created in 1965 as an appellate program within the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  The first Public Defender, Attorney Robert H. Friebert, received an office in the State Capitol and a $13,000 salary.  Describing his newly-created job, Friebert told the press:  “The Supreme Court hired me to do battle.  And I shall do battle.”

Soon after, then Attorney General Bronson LaFollette declared the new office an “important step in providing full and adequate legal services for all individuals, regardless of their ability to pay,” but, he added, “the job is only half done.”  In 1977, Wisconsin took a giant step forward when the Public Defender’s office was transferred to the executive branch and expanded to provide trial court defense services.

Today, the Wisconsin State Public Defender has over 300 lawyers, making it the largest law firm in the state.  Approximately 550 employees work in 38 field offices to provide indigent defense services in literally every Wisconsin county.  In addition, approximately 1,200 private bar attorneys affiliate with the agency to provide defense services in conflict and surplus cases.

Nicholas Chiarkas, the Public Defender for 22 years, retired on January 11, 2011.  He  led the agency to significant professional recognition, including three Wisconsin Forward Awards.  Under his stewardship, the agency helped develop drug, alcohol, and mental-health treatment courts throughout the state, and it was the primary facilitator of the Wisconsin Veterans Intervention Program.

On March 15, 2010, Chiarkas and the agency achieved a hard-fought legislative victory when Governor Jim Doyle signed a bill reforming the eligibility requirements for Public Defender representation to include Wisconsin’s working poor.  In a press release, Chiarkas thanked “the many partners who stepped forward to support this criminal justice initiative including Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson, Attorney General Van Hollen, judges, district attorneys, private attorneys, county officials, and community leaders.  It is inspiring and noble that not a single supporter of this legislation asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘What’s the risk?’  They just stood up for what was right because it was right.”

On April 1, 2011, Kelli Thompson, having served as Deputy Public Defender for seven years, became the new Wisconsin State Public Defender.

Sources:  Dennis Cassano, State’s First Public Defender Squares Off to Do Battle, Wisconsin State Journal, May 1, 1966, at A4; Public Defender Applications Being Accepted, Wisconsin State Journal, Friday December 24, 1965 at 4; LaFollette Urges Defender System, The Capital Times, October 27, 1966 at 16.

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