The first female state lawyer leads a team of 620 people


MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – While in law school at Marquette University, Kelli Thompson said she did not consider practicing law. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but knew that a law degree would lead to other avenues.

“The trial job was really never my idea,” said Thompson.

She interned at a law firm to confirm it wasn’t for her, then went to see her father, who had been a lawyer to Elroy and Mauston. “Her advice was that you can’t decide you hate everything until you’ve actually tried it,” she said.

Her father, former Governor Tommy Thompson, told her she needed to feel like she was in a courtroom. She went to work for the Public Defender’s Office in Milwaukee as an intern and “never looked back.”


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

She also handles four or five cases a year herself. Lately, she’s taken on cases in Ashland and Bayfield counties, mostly remotely, as those are the areas that are most understaffed.

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 college.

Their mother, Sue Ann Thompson, kept her teaching job in the nearby town of Kendall for the first few years their father was governor until she established the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation.

“We stayed at Elroy,” said Thompson. “We all went on to school and each of us graduated from there. We would go down in the summer, and we would go down often on weekends and bring our friends.

Thompson said she will always remember her first day as an intern at the Public Defender’s Office in 1996, feeling completely overwhelmed. She talks about people who caught her while they were going to court. “It’s definitely sink or swim. You’re just thrown in.

As a young mother, to spend more time with her children, Thompson worked in public relations and later served as a commissioner on the Wisconsin Personnel Commission. She has held several positions in the State Public Defender’s Office, starting with administration.

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

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

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

Thompson and her 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 in first year at UW-La Crosse; and Maggie, 13, is in eighth grade at St. James Catholic School.

For nearly 12 years, they lived in Richmond Hills on the Far East Side of Madison, about a block from his parents.

They have three dogs, all rescued, and two guinea pigs. “It’s a packed house,” Thompson said, noting that her husband says she can’t bring any other animals home. “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 to people who, without us, could not afford a lawyer. Obviously we see on TV people getting the rights to Miranda, you know, if you can’t afford one, one will be appointed for you. It is so important. The criminal justice system is complicated. there is no doubt. And I think it got more complicated. It’s definitely more complicated than when I first started practicing law and (you can’t) have people who don’t have that legal expertise to try to represent themselves when they are considering losing. their freedom. They are considering losing their property. They plan to lose their children. It is extremely important to have this person next to them, defending their freedom, their due process rights, their constitutional rights.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your breast cancer diagnosis?

A: So I would be the third in my immediate family to have breast cancer. My mother had breast cancer, my younger sister, who is a year younger, had breast cancer before me and myself, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, I had cancer breast. Let me tell you, you get the diagnosis, you can’t really claim it’s a shock. You know it happens. … But I had a phenomenal surgeon, a phenomenal GP who actually found him. … I had a radical mastectomy. I’m well. It’s been five years.

Q: I saw your dad working in a room. It is something to see. Do you take after him?

A: I don’t know if anyone can work in a room like my dad (laughs). I like people. I like to talk with people. I like to meet people. I can also sit quietly and I don’t know if he can. I mean, he loves it. He doesn’t play politics for nothing, but he just loves talking to people. He likes to meet different people. You know I grew up watching it and I love it, but he has a special skill that I would never claim to have.

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

A: No, not at all. I do not think so. You know, you never say never. … I can always apologize for things I said or for things I did because that is part of life. I mean, I’m like everyone else, I make mistakes every day, but I sure don’t want to have to go out there and stand up for something that I think really, really matters to me.

Q: Do you belong to a political party?

A: Well, obviously I grew up as a Republican. I have always considered myself to be rather in the middle of the road. Because of the work I do, I never really say, you know, I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat, I’m a libertarian, because criminal justice shouldn’t be a party. … I didn’t even think about it. Obviously, it’s no secret how I grew up and these values, they made me who I am today. These are also the values ​​that I think kind of shaped the work that I was able to do. Again, in the criminal justice system, it shouldn’t be a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. It should be us who come together to make the right decisions.


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