Trial Division Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are public defenders real lawyers?
Yes, public defenders are attorneys who specialize in the criminal defense cases and work for the State Public Defender's Office (SPD).

Are attorneys appointed by the State Public Defender as good as privately paid attorneys?
Attorneys appointed by the SPD are among the most skilled and experienced in the field of criminal law. Because they specialize in criminal cases, staff of the SPD quickly attain a high degree of skill and knowledge. In addition, private attorneys certified for public defender appointments have met the SPD's training and experience requirements for the types of cases for which they are appointed.

Will an attorney paid by the State fight for my rights?
Yes. Attorneys appointed by the SPD are among the most tenacious and aggressive in advocating for their clients. Often, the desire to protect individual rights against governmental authority is a major reason why an attorney becomes a public defender or accepts public defender cases.

What decisions belong to the attorney and what decisions belong to the client?
The client, in consultation with his or her attorney makes the most fundamental decisions regarding the case. For example, the client decides whether to plead guilty or to have a trial, whether to waive a jury trial and other constitutional rights, and whether to testify in a trial. The attorney decides strategic or tactical issues, often in consultation with the client. Examples of these decisions include which pretrial motions to file, which witness to call in a proceeding, and whether to object to questions or exhibits presented by the prosecution.

Is my case likely to go to trial or be settled before trial?
As indicated in the previous answer, the client ultimately decides whether to proceed to trial or to accept a settlement offer. The attorney has an obligation to convey settlement offers to the client and to explain their possible advantages and disadvantages. Most cases are settled because after both sides have investigated the facts, they are in agreement about the likely outcome of a trial and the general range of punishment that is appropriate.

Does the judge have to go along with a plea agreement?
No. In Wisconsin, judges are not part of plea agreements and are not bound by them. Therefore, when a client pleads guilty, he or she may be sentenced to the maximum penalty allowed for the offense or offenses in question. In many cases, however, the judge gives great weight to the recommendation made by the attorneys as part of a plea agreement.

Why did my appointed attorney tell me to plead not guilty when I said I don't want to have a trial?
To negotiate effectively, the defense attorney needs the opportunity to investigate both the facts of the case and the possible types of settlement. The initial plea of not guilty can be changed at any time before trial. However, if the client pleads guilty without any agreement, he or she often loses any opportunity to have the charge or charges reduced or dismissed, as well as losing the chance to negotiate a sentencing recommendation with the prosecutor.

Can I choose which attorney from the SPD represents me?
Because of the need to distribute the high volume of cases fairly and efficiently, the SPD cannot allow clients to pick the individual attorneys appointed to represent them.

What can I do if I am dissatisfied with the attorney appointed for me?
Most often, disagreements can be resolved successfully simply by speaking with the appointed attorney. However, if communicating directly with the attorney is not successful, the client may speak to the supervisor of the SPD office that appointed the attorney. Often, the supervisor can resolve the issue in satisfactory manner by speaking to the appointed attorney.

Can I fire my appointed attorney and get a different one?
Under some circumstances, yes. The client should make a written request to the SPD local office that appointed the attorney. The SPD will appoint a second attorney after the court has given permission to the first attorney to withdraw from providing representation in the case. Additional attorneys are appointed only if the court finds that there is a good reason to allow the second attorney to withdraw.

Can I still be represented by an attorney appointed by the SPD if I get a job while my case is pending?
A client who originally qualified for SPD representation remains eligible for continued representation in a pending proceeding despite a change in financial circumstances. However, the SPD may adjust the payment amount in response to a change of circumstances if the client has not paid the discount amount within the applicable time period.