The Legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright in Wisconsin

Posted on Categories Constitutional Law, Criminal Law & Process, Public, Wisconsin Criminal Law & Process

I’d like to take the opportunity through my posts this month to talk about some of the trends and milestones that I see in the field of law, particularly as it pertains to our criminal justice system.

Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, started with a handwritten petition from Clarence Gideon. The decision in Gideon set the country’s criminal justice system on a different course: defendants who could not afford legal counsel had the right be be provided with such representation.

Although the scope of the constitutional right to counsel was established with the Gideon decision, the responsibility and the details of its implementation were left to the individual states. In the early years following the decision, Wisconsin complied with the requirement through a county-by-county system. This county-based approach changed in 1977 when Wisconsin took the strategic step of adopting a statewide model of indigent defense, establishing the Office of the State Public Defender (SPD) as an independent, executive-branch state agency. SPD trial offices started to open across the state, and the appellate representation, previously overseen by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, was transferred to the agency. The SPD ensures that our state meets the constitutional requirements set forth in Gideon.

Wisconsin’s statewide approach offered through the SPD offered consistency of operations, equal access to justice throughout the entire state, and economies of scale. Today, Wisconsin is one of about 20 states that rely on a statewide public defender system, with the remaining states largely relying on a county-by-county system.

The SPD’s jurisdiction reaches all of Wisconsin’s courtrooms. Staff are located in 35 trial offices located around the state, in 2 appellate offices located in Milwaukee and Madison, and in one central administration office in Madison. In fact, this very month we will honor the 35th anniversary of the opening of our first trial offices. In addition to SPD staff, over 1,000 private attorneys represent clients who meet with criteria for SPD services. These private attorneys are certified to accept public defender appointments in conflict of interest and overflow cases. Through the combined effort of our staff and our partners in the private bar, the SPD represented clients in almost 140,000 new cases in the last fiscal year.

The SPD is one component of a very strong criminal justice system that also includes judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, corrections officials, and court personnel. I am proud to say that Wisconsin has a long tradition of supporting all parts of this criminal justice system, in spite of fiscal challenges. In the area of providing effective defense services to those unable to hire an attorney, we recognize the decision in Gideon v. Wainwright as an important and historic part of this tradition.

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