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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 10, 2022

    Final Thought
    Justice Delayed Can Be Justice Denied

    Among the COVID-19 pandemic's lingering effects are delays in criminal-case processing in Wisconsin courts. Stakeholders working together can help clear the backlogs and revive faith and trust in the legal system.

    Kelli Thompson

    Every year on March 18, National Public Defender Day celebrates Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment requires states to provide legal counsel to individuals who are unable to afford an attorney.

    Kelli S. ThompsonKelli S. Thompson, Marquette 1996, is the Wisconsin State Public Defender, State Public Defenders Office, Madison.

    Thank you to public defender staff and private bar attorneys for the work they do every day to protect the constitutional rights of our clients. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling.

    Our clients are people often marginalized by society. Many individuals end up in the criminal justice system only because our nation hasn’t committed to finding better ways to help people with mental health and addiction issues, despite knowing that the criminal legal system is the most expensive and least effective way to address these issues.

    COVID-19 has significantly affected the criminal justice system. Reduced or limited access to the court system during the pandemic resulted in longer times spent in custody for many of our clients (at times putting their health and safety at risk) and a backlog of cases. Members of the Wisconsin legal community have had frank discussions about the slowdown’s creating an accumulation of cases that may take two or more years to resolve in some counties. It’s a discussion courts are having nationwide.

    Although the court system didn’t close during the pandemic and staff were working around the clock, cases throughout the state moved more slowly, turnover of staff attorneys significantly increased, and the number of private bar attorneys certified to take Wisconsin State Public Defender appointments decreased.

    But as we work through these backlogs, the criminal legal machine continues to churn as if these are normal times. They are not. Charging new cases provides the appearance that cases are moving forward, but the pandemic-induced backlog means longer delays before cases are ready for trial, not to mention limits on the number of jury trials that can take place each week. These delays can keep individuals charged with a crime in a state of limbo, incarcerated yet presumed innocent.

    The SPD is the last participant to join a case, yet defense counsel are often the focus of the systemic frustration that these cases are not moving fast enough. Although efficiency is important, constitutional rights must be protected. We can’t do that alone and will continue to work with other criminal justice stakeholders outside the courtroom to find ways to effectively handle cases going forward. The Supreme Court’s recognition in Gideon that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” cannot simply be aspirational in protecting the lives of individuals who are still presumed innocent.

    Our clients are suffering. The system is stressed. Only by working together can we get through these challenges and protect the promise of Gideon that reflects some of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.

    Thank you to public defender staff and private bar attorneys for the work they do every day to protect the constitutional rights of our clients.

    Meet Our Contributors

    What is your favorite place in Wisconsin?

    Kelli S. ThompsonThere are so many beautiful places to visit in Wisconsin, but two stand out for me. The first is my parents’ home near Merrimac on Lake Wisconsin. My family – all 17 of us, including my husband and three daughters, my sister’s family of five, my brother’s family of five, my parents and the seven dogs (yes – seven!) – spend many summer weekends there swimming, skiing, boating, and relaxing by the water. It’s a truly idyllic Wisconsin setting.

    My other favorite place is my hometown of Elroy. With its rolling hills, forests, and farmland, the kids love to hike, fish, ride four-wheelers, and explore the family farm. No matter how long I’ve been away, it always feels like home.

    Kelli S. Thompson, Wisconsin State Public Defender, Madison

    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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