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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 01, 2013

    Final Thought: The Promise of Gideon

    The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, requiring states to provide legal representation to indigent defendants facing serious offenses, marks 50 years this month.

    Kelli Sue Thompson

    “John” is a typical teenager. Growing up, he really liked playing in the park down his street – especially on the giant slide. During the summer, John would put on his Brewers’ jersey and watch the games with his friends. In the winter, John and his friends would switch to Bucks’ games and basketball jerseys.

    John’s family was important to him, and he saw both his parents work hard at their jobs. As John grew older, he grew more distant from his family. John started skipping school more and more and eventually got involved in drugs. This involvement led to John stealing items from the neighborhood grocery store.

    I spent hours with John and heard all these stories about his childhood and upbringing. In time, John’s trust in me grew as he talked about his life.

    Kelli ThompsonKelli Thompson, Marquette 1996, is the Wisconsin State Public Defender.

    Why, you may ask, did I spend so much time with John? Because John was my client, and I was representing him in a homicide case. Now, the truth is, John is a composite taken from a number of my clients. Sadly, I did not have to look far to create the composite. Behaviors like skipping school and drug involvement are far too common among my clients.

    I started working with these clients as a staff attorney in the State Public Defender’s Milwaukee Trial Office. I never want to lose my connection to clients, so I continue to take cases even after my appointment as the Wisconsin State Public Defender.

    There’s a very real chance that in another time and in another place, I would not have had an opportunity to represent these individuals. Years ago, there was not a constitutional right to legal representation in criminal cases for persons too poor to afford an attorney.

    Fifty years ago, on March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon. The decision handed down in Gideon v. Wainwright was groundbreaking. It required states to provide attorneys to indigent defendants facing serious offenses. Later decisions expanded the requirements to include legal representation in misdemeanors and juvenile cases.

    The Gideon decision was, and still is, an inspiration to not only experienced attorneys but also to recent law school graduates. Just as important, it was the impetus that eventually led Wisconsin to create the Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD) as an independent, executive-branch state agency. The Wisconsin SPD ensures that our state meets the constitutional requirements outlined in Gideon.

    Today, the Wisconsin SPD operates offices throughout the state and delivers on the promise of Gideon on behalf of all Wisconsin citizens.

    Gideon has paved the way for many attorneys, including me, to work at a vocation that matches our life’s calling. And it gives individuals like “John” a defense attorney, standing next to him in the courtroom, who listens, cares, and, above all, protects his rights in our court system.

    In 500 words or less, tell us a thought-provoking, inspiring, or entertaining story about life as a lawyer. Contact the editors at

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