NLADA and ACCD Statement Concerning Public Defender Contempt Charge

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(Updated November 20, 2018)

We are deeply concerned by events last month in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in which a public defender was detained while defending a client in court. The public defender was handcuffed, chained at the waist and shackled at the ankles after being held in contempt of court for conduct that is described as a non-verbal display of frustration after the court detained his client despite his assertion that a drug test was inaccurate. A second drug test that was conducted came back negative.   

The use of summary contempt is an extraordinary action requiring specific procedural protections and careful discretion. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court: “Summary punishment always, and rightfully, is regarded with disfavor and, if imposed in passion or pettiness, brings discredit to a court as certainly as the conduct it penalizes.” Sacher v. United States, 343 U.S. 1, 8 (1952)

Zealous representation is not only fundamental to due process and fair and just case outcomes, but it is also required by the canons of ethics. Although advocacy must be tempered with professional respect by stakeholders across the justice system, the heightened emotions and tension inherent in protecting a person’s liberty should not result in the drastic judicial response that was reported in Milwaukee.

We stand in unity with the public defense community in Milwaukee and our colleagues nationwide.  We are pleased that the court in question has vacated the contempt finding. We hope the light that was shed on this unfortunate incident will encourage judicial temperance in the future in Milwaukee and across the country.