Skip to main content

Major Development in Wisconsin’s Public Defender Crisis

  • Birdsall Obear

Attorney John Birdsall is among those taking legal action to make sure that justice delayed does not become justice denied for indigent defendants awaiting trial in Wisconsin courts.  

“At stake are people’s freedom, public safety, and the community’s ability to have faith in its government institutions,” Birdsall said.  


The class action suit filed by The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL), Winston & Strawn, LLP, and New York University School of Law’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law names seven Wisconsin officials as defendants, most notably Governor Tony Evers and Wisconsin State Public Defender Kelli Thompson. 


As we’ve covered before, Wisconsin is in the midst of a constitutional crisis due to the lack of available public defenders. This has led to a backup of more than 35,000 cases, causing delays that violate the sixth amendment rights of defendants who cannot afford bail. For example, one woman spent more than 100 days in jail on $25,000 bail while awaiting the appointment of an attorney. 


State officials created the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office to provide competent lawyers to those who couldn't afford them, Birdsall said. 


"However, the structural defects of the system as it currently exists, including inadequate compensation offered to court-appointed counsel, has resulted in many individuals being in legal limbo as the state public defender is simply unable to find attorneys to take the cases," Birdsall said. 


"For some reasons that are unknown, the (state Public Defender's Office) has not provided any specific information about the extent of the problem or the ways in which they intend to resolve it," Birdsall said.