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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    April 01, 2017

    Final Thought
    Honoring Those Who Defend

    Public defenders are often criticized and rarely thanked, but the work they do to represent accused individuals helps everyone by protecting constitutional rights.

    Nicholas L. Chiarkas

    For 22 years (1988-2011), as the Wisconsin State Public Defender, I had the honor of working with my heroes – men and women who have turned their backs to wealth, safety, and deference to stand with our least favored, most vulnerable citizens. Their willingness to hold the government to its promise to provide due process before it takes people’s liberty often causes these lawyers to be vilified. Their willingness to fight for the U.S. Constitution carries no less risk and no less value today than it did when the constitution was born. Their willingness to stand beside fellow citizens accused of crimes and discarded by the rest of society makes them, like those few lawyers who defended people accused of witchcraft in Salem, courageous. 

    Nicholas L. ChiarkasNicholas L. Chiarkas, Temple 1978, served as the Wisconsin State Public Defender from 1988 to 2011. He currently focuses on fiction writing at his Middleton home and recently released Weepers, a novel.

    I am in awe of the many talented lawyers who have dedicated themselves to the Wisconsin State Public Defender agency, in spite of the long hours and criticism. I know they are often asked, “Why do you do it?” The uncomplicated truth is that they still believe in the ideal that made America great: “Justice for all.” Standing up for that belief is true patriotism. Because of their uncompromised courage in defense of our country’s poorest residents, and their pure patriotism, they are my heroes.

    Today, my list of heroes also includes immigration lawyers, who often volunteer to comfort and lend their legal assistance to lost, frightened, and disheartened human beings in search of safety and hope. They, too, are often vilified and maligned, and yet they push on.

    The Wisconsin public defender agency comprises dedicated people who are more like family than coworkers. There is always someone who celebrates when you triumph and comforts you in defeat. Someone cares when your child attends his first prom or when a parent is lying in a hospital bed. There is always someone to drink coffee with on a cold, dreary Monday morning and wish each other well before the weekend. The folks who make up that amazing agency are the best of the best.

    My list of heroes also includes immigration lawyers, who often volunteer to comfort and lend their legal assistance to lost, frightened, and disheartened human beings in search of safety and hope.

    All the accomplishments of the Wisconsin State Public Defender agency are the result of an uncompromising team spirit. Whatever the project, there always are people to give advice, lend support, bend the rules, accept the exceptions, applaud the results, and, at times, provide consolation. That team spirit is the basis for all the successes of this remarkable agency.

    I know this agency will continue to excel because I know the heart and soul of the SPD Board and the agency’s leadership team. They are the very best of our dedicated public service professionals.

    Thank you for all you do every day.

    Meet Our Contributors

    What was your funniest or oddest experience in a law-related activity?

    Nicholas L. ChiarkasHmmm. As an attorney … can’t think of one worth telling. How about as a cop instead? As I have said, I was a New York City cop, and on this particular summer day, I was assigned, in uniform, to a footpath in Central Park. Lots of people were going to an outdoor concert in the park; I was there to make them feel safe and secure. It was early evening and there I was twirling my nightstick (a skill, of which I was rather proud) as people strolled by. Anyway, the nightstick took a bad hop and I hit myself in the nose. Blood flowed fast all over my face. The people around me started rolling in the grass laughing. In fact, several followed me – as I went in search of a water fountain – telling others about the cop who hit himself in the nose with his own nightstick.

    While that might seem bad enough, this was the summer of unrest, 1966, in New York City. And folks who didn’t see me hit myself called the police to report an officer with blood on his face was in the middle of a crowd. Fellow police officers arrived in cars from every direction. I had to explain over and over again, “I hit myself.” After the concert, as folks were leaving along the same footpath, many of them asked me how I was (and giggled). It was a long night.

    In addition to this experience, people also might not know: 1) My novel, Weepers draws from my memory and my heart. I grew up in the Al Smith projects where Weepers takes place; 2) I raised my two oldest children mostly as a single dad – just the three of us. They taught me a lot; 3) I was one of a handful of NYPD cops sent to Woodstock in 1969 to provide security – it was incredible; 4) In 1965, while I was in an Army hospital, I received a very kind letter from J.D. Salinger; and 5) I was in the movie “The Anderson Tapes” (starring Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Walken).

    Nicholas L. Chiarkas, Middleton.

    Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email Check out our writing and submission guidelines.

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