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First female state public defender leads staff of 620

By: Associated Press//December 20, 2021//

First female state public defender leads staff of 620

By: Associated Press//December 20, 2021//

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Kelli Thompson (File photo by Kevin Harnack)
Kelli Thompson (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — While at Marquette University Law School, Kelli Thompson said she didn’t envision herself practicing law. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but knew a law degree would lead to other paths.

“Trial work was really never my idea,” Thompson said.

She did an internship at a law firm to confirm it wasn’t for her, then went to her father, who had been a lawyer in Elroy and Mauston. “His advice was you can’t decide you hate everything before you actually try it,” she said.

Her father, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, told her she needed to get the feel of a courtroom. She went to work for the public defender’s office in Milwaukee as an intern and “never looked back.”

Now, Wisconsin’s first female state public defender, Thompson, 52, manages an annual budget of $110 million and a staff of 620 for all 72 counties.

She also handles four or five cases a year herself. Lately, she’s been taking cases in Ashland and Bayfield counties, mostly remotely, because those are areas that are the most short-staffed.

Growing up as the daughter of Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor was “‘pretty normal,” Thompson said.

She and her younger sister, Tommi, were in high school in Elroy, 65 miles northwest of Madison, when their father was first elected governor in 1986 after 20 years in the state Legislature. Their brother, Jason, was in middle school.

Their mother, Sue Ann Thompson, kept her teaching job in neighboring Kendall for the first several years their father was governor until she created the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation.

“We stayed in Elroy,” Thompson said. “We all continued school and each of us graduated from there. We’d come down in the summers, and we would come down on weekends oftentimes and bring our friends down.”

Thompson said she will forever remember her first day as an intern in the public defender’s office in 1996 feeling completely overwhelmed. She talks about people grabbing her as they were running into court. “It is definitely sink or swim. You are just thrown in.”

As a young mother, to spend more time with her children Thompson did public relations work and later served as a commissioner to the Wisconsin Personnel Commission. She had a number of jobs in the state public defender’s office, starting in administration.

She now oversees lawyers who handle 120,000 to 145,000 cases a year, ranging from misdemeanors to homicides to appeals.

Thompson does it by drinking copious amounts of Diet Mountain Dew, joked Adam Plotkin, the office’s legislative liaison.

“If I could put it intravenously into my veins, I would,” Thompson said.

Thompson and husband Chris Iglar, who works in communications at American Family Insurance, have three daughters. Sophie, 22, is a senior at UW-Madison; Ellie, 18, is a freshman at UW-La Crosse; and Maggie, 13, is in eighth grade at St. James Catholic School.

For almost 12 years, they’ve lived in Richmond Hills on Madison’s Far East Side, about a block and a half from her parents.

They have three dogs, all rescues, and two guinea pigs. “It’s full house,” said Thompson, noting that her husband says she can’t bring home any other animals. “He knows I will,” she said. “I mean, it’s just a matter of time.”

Q: Why don’t you start by telling me about the importance of this agency and why you do this work.

A: I think this agency is critically important because we provide representation for individuals who, without us, could not afford an attorney. We see obviously on TV people get the Miranda rights, you know, if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you. That is so important. The criminal justice system is complicated. There is no doubt about that. And I think it’s become more complicated. It is certainly more complicated than when I started practicing law and (you can’t) ask individuals who don’t have that expertise in the legal area to try and represent themselves when they’re looking at losing their liberty. They’re looking at losing their property. They’re looking at losing their children. It’s extraordinarily critically important to have that individual standing next to them, advocating for their liberty, their due process rights, their constitutional rights.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your breast cancer diagnosis?

A: So, I would be the third of my immediate family having breast cancer. My mom had breast cancer, my younger sister, who’s a year younger, had breast cancer before myself and then myself, my grandmother, my mom’s mom, had breast cancer. Let me tell you, you get the diagnosis, you can’t really pretend it’s a shock. You know it’s coming. … But I had a phenomenal surgeon, a phenomenal general practitioner who actually found it. … I had a radical mastectomy. I’m doing well. It’s been five years.

Q: I’ve watched your dad work a room. It’s something to behold. Do you take after him?

A: I don’t know if anybody can work a room like my dad (laughing). I like people. I like to talk with people. I like to meet with people. I can also sit quietly and I don’t know if he can. I mean, he loves it. He’s not politicking for anything, but he just loves to talk to people. He loves to meet different people. You know, I’ve grown up watching that and I enjoy that, but he has a special skill that I would never pretend to have.

Q: Do you have any aspirations to run for office?

A: No, not at all. I don’t think so. You know, you never say never. … I can always apologize for things I’ve said or apologize for things I’ve done because that’s part of life. I mean, I’m like everybody else, I make mistakes every day, but I surely don’t want to have to go out there and somehow defend something that I feel is really, really critically important.

Q: Do you belong to a political party?

A: Well, I grew up obviously as a Republican. I’ve always considered myself pretty middle of the road. Because of the work that I do, I don’t really ever say, you know, I’m Republican, I’m Democrat, I’m Libertarian, because criminal justice, it shouldn’t be a party. … I really haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, it’s no secret how I grew up and those values, they’ve made me who I am today. It’s also those values I think that have been able to kind of shape the work that I’ve been able to do. Again, in the criminal justice system, it shouldn’t be a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. It should be us coming together for the right decisions.


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