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State Public Defender Kelli Thompson resigns

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 15, 2023//

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson.

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson.

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson resigns

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//September 15, 2023//

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Former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s daughter, Kelli Thompson, has resigned from her role as head of the state’s top public defender, effective Oct. 9.

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Thursday, Thompson said she has no plans to run for political office and has no other job offer lined up.

Thompson has headed the Public Defender’s Office for more than a decade. Prior to that she worked as deputy public defender for several years, and before that she served as an assistant public defender in the Milwaukee trial office.

When asked if low pay, long of hours, burnout and high caseloads were reasons why she tendered her resignation, Thompson said, “no.”

Thompson said it would have been hypocritical for her to quit for those reasons when she’s asked her staff to stay when faced with similar challenges.

“I’m not leaving because I am burnt out or tired. I’m leaving this position because we have accomplished a lot and at some point you have to let others lead. That is the reason for my resignation,” Thompson said Thursday.

Thompson added, “I’ll always be a public defender at heart. I love the client work and I want to stay client advocacy focused,” noting, she will likely search for a new role in the private sector in a criminal defense role.


Of the many accomplishments her office has seen over the past decade, Thompson noted the most recent bipartisan effort of the Legislature and governor working together to improve Wisconsin’s criminal justice system.

“The budget that just passed is good. The Legislature and governor ended up adopting a bipartisan response to the difficulties in our criminal justice system,” Thompson said, noting it will help with attorney recruitment and retention efforts from the Public Defender’s Office.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, Wisconsin was on the brink of a constitutional crisis as district attorney and public defender pay was so low, plumbers made more money in the Badger State, until the recent budget increase.

Reflecting on Thompson’s career, she admires how Wisconsin’s office of the public defender is not partisan.

“I believe the justice system should not be partisan. Issues that impact my clients impact Democrats and Republicans … all of us,  our children, our parents and our grandparents. We work really hard to work across the aisle with everyone to address what our clients need regardless of their political affiliation,” Thompson said.

The most fulfilling and rewarding part of working in the public defender’s office has been giving a voice to those who don’t have one, she said.

“My clients are part of our community and society. We try our best to do everything so we can to support and uplift them,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s parting wish is that future attorneys will go into this line of work for the right reasons with enough resources.

“My fear is making sure the people are going into this mission driven work for the right reasons. It’s so important. We are dealing with individual liberties and constitutional rights. We need staff to have the resources that they need to have a well-funded justice system,” Thompson said.


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