Wisconsin State Public Defender Kelli Thompson reflects on 12 years overseeing agency

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson.

There are three things to know in the wake of Kelli Thompson’s recent announcement that she’s stepping down as State Public Defender.

She hasn’t gone out and lined up another job.

Her health is great.

And even though her father, Tommy Thompson, was elected to four terms as Wisconsin governor, she’s not running for public office.

“It’s the right thing. It’s the right decision,” she said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel as she reflected on her 12 years of leading the agency that provides legal representation to the indigent throughout the state in criminal cases.

But that doesn’t mean it was an easy choice.

“I have to tell you, I have cried more over this decision than anything else,” she said.

Thompson revealed she’ll resign effective Oct. 9 in as low-key a way as possible. There was a press announcement and letter released Sept. 1, before the Labor Day holiday weekend.

Thompson will be succeeded as acting State Public Defender by a deputy, Katie York, with the board conducting a search to fill the position on a full-time basis.

She’ll leave office after a successful budget season that saw pay increases to public defenders (assistant district attorneys also received a significant boost). The rate for private attorneys hired by the public defender’s office also increased from $70 to $100 an hour.

The agency, which employs around 700 people including 375 attorneys, has an annual budget of $133 million. It handled a little more than 115,000 cases last year but faces a significant backlog.

In August 2022, a suit filed in Green Bay against Gov. Tony Evers and the state Public Defender Board accused Wisconsin of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of indigent criminal defendants who have waited weeks and months for an appointed lawyer.

The case is before Circuit Court Judge Tom Walsh who is anticipated to make a decision regarding the defendants’ motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

Two state Supreme Court justices lauded Thompson’s work with the agency.

Chief Justice Annette Ziegler called Thompson “a long-serving, dedicated public servant in the justice system.”

“For many people, the State Public Defender’s office is the only means by which they receive access to justice,” Ziegler said in a statement. “Kelli not only effectively advocated for the public defender’s office, but she has been a steadfast defender of constitutional rights for those in need of legal services. Job well done, Kelli!”

Justice Rebecca Dallet said Thompson has given “her heart and soul” to her clients and her agency and “advocated on behalf of all of us for a better criminal justice system.”

“I think she loves her job but I also know that Kelli has done the work of training the next generation and has ensured it will be in good hands when she leaves,” Dallet said in an interview.

Mary Triggiano, the former Milwaukee County chief judge and current director of the Andrew Center for Restorative Justice, said: “I’ve not seen anyone work as tirelessly and as hard as she has over the years for her clients and the state of Wisconsin.”

“She’s a dear friend,” Triggiano said. “We’ve brainstormed the pandemic and backlogs together. It’s going to be an incredible loss for that office and it will be interesting to see what she does next. She has a big heart.”

In her resignation letter, Thompson wrote about the challenges facing Wisconsin’s criminal legal system that “has been asked to do too much with too little.”

“It is the most expensive and least effective way to protect the public,” she wrote. “We continue to criminalize issues better left addressed through the mental health, substance abuse treatment, and educational system than the court system. In continuing to do so, we perpetuate generational harm, particularly in our Black and Native American communities, all while not making our state safer.”

“Prison should be the last resort,” she told the Journal Sentinel.

She said she wants her tenure to be remembered “as someone who was committed to indigent defense, committed to my clients, committed to my staff, committed to the people I sit with and work with every single day.”

She said it is a privilege to “work alongside people who are fighting for other individuals but also to work with these individuals whose voices are oftentimes not heard.”

Real people, she said, are in the criminal justice system. And they deserve the best defense.

“Truly, I love the public defender’s office,” she said. “I’m leaving with a heavy heart.”

Journal Sentinel reporter Ashley Luthern contributed to this article.

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