SHERIDAN — Erin Wardell has what many would consider a thankless job. She spends hour upon hour each week working for people who cannot afford to pay her.
She does it out of principle.
Wardell, 37, works as the supervising attorney for the Public Defender’s Office. She provides legal counsel to defendants in the criminal justice system who cannot afford to hire private attorneys. She also manages the office for the 4th Judicial District.
If you were to sit through any typical day — especially Mondays — in Sheridan County Circuit Court, you would be surprised by the number of people who ask to be provided legal counsel because they cannot afford it on their own.
According to the Harvard Law School, public defender offices must accept cases referred to them by the courts. This means that case loads are often heavy, leading to long hours of work.
Wardell tackles that work in the face of a number of challenges.
“The role of serving as a public defender is, by its nature, a difficult one,” an essay by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. wrote regarding the roles of public defenders in the 21st century. “Public criticism of the legal profession in general is quite widespread… The public appears to dislike lawyers of all kinds, but it reserves a special contempt for those who represent indigent clients charged with crimes. After all, public defenders are called upon every day to represent indigents who are accused of murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, theft, drug usage and distribution, assault and other conduct that threatens persons and property alike. Many believe that people accused of such crimes do not deserve to have ay counsel at all, much less competent, well-trained counsel.”
Wardell, though, said she believes everyone deserves competent counsel.
“It has always been important to me that everyone involved in the court system has a meaningful right counsel and due process regardless of their socioeconomic status,” Wardell said.
Wardell, it seems, is a fitting individual to take on such a role. She is kind, conscientious and patient.
“Erin is a great lawyer and a great person,” Sheridan attorney Ryan Healy said. “She cares deeply not only about her clients’ cases, but also about her clients’ lives.
“Being a public defender is not an eight-to-five job, and no one works harder than Erin,” Healy continued. “She is often at the jail early in the morning, waiting for the doors to open so that she can get into see her clients before her busy day in court begins. She is tough and compassionate. Her clients, and our justice system, are lucky to have her.”
State Public Defender Diane M. Lozano has noted that being a public defender is more than appearing in court.
“It is a state of mind; it is a commitment to the ideal that all individuals deserve to be treated with dignity and due process; it is an opportunity to create change, within the system, within our clients and within ourselves,” Lozano said.
Wardell has lived in Sheridan for 12 years and noted that because she has family in the area, the community has always felt like a second home.
She’s married and has started a family in Sheridan.