He’s only 44, but the walls and shelves of Joe Bugni’s office at the Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin are already filled with not just family memories, but also reminders of the clients he served during his tenure. career representing the indigent in federal court.
A customer’s family chocolate bar. A bottle of wine from another, still unopened. Photos, drawings, letters, a memory box from a client whose case, according to Bugni, was “my first great victory”. Something else from a client Bugni calls “the best human being I have ever known”. There is a story with everything.
Originally from Milwaukee, Bugni is the son of a factory worker and a special education teacher turned school principal. At 6-foot-4, he played offensive tackle for the Riverside University High School football team, then played four years at Cornell University, two of them as a starter.
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The pros didn’t come calling, not that he expected that.
“I was good for the Ivy League, but that was it,” Bugni said.
With an undergraduate degree in economics, Bugni joined Teach for America. But after a religious conversion at the age of 22, he thought of becoming a priest instead. In the meantime, living in Madison, he worked at the Great Dane and at a group home for men with developmental disabilities. After realizing the priesthood was not for him, he married his wife Kirsten, whom he met at Teach for America.
They now have six children, ages 16 to 19 months.
Bugni attended law school at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Catholic school that has since moved to Florida.
“At Ave Maria, it was really like the person and the dignity of people,” Bugni said. “And so I really enjoyed that. And it was a deep immersion in the law.
Bugni then clerked for a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida for three years before spending two years in Indiana as clerk for Judge Daniel Manion of the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th circuit.
The desire to become a criminal defense attorney led Bugni to a job with Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin, located in Milwaukee. It is a private firm funded by a federal grant to represent indigent criminal clients in federal court. After three years in the Milwaukee office, Bugni became supervising attorney in the firm’s Madison office, where he has worked for seven years.
How did you decide to go into law?
When I realized that I was not called to be a priest, I wanted to be able to serve people. A member of my family was the victim of a violent crime. And I saw how well the DA’s office was able to serve my family. I thought I could give people that same dignity, and I wanted to.
How did this lead to working for the indigent?
My first case when I was clerk was a guy named Thomas Mastrelli, and he was innocent. And I watched his trial and saw the way the defendants were treated. And I thought, this is what I could dedicate my life to. And so it was a slow process after the Tom Mastrelli trial, but I thought that was what I wanted to do to serve people.
Is it more difficult to defend the accused in federal court? Why?
I think the federal government has more resources to prosecute people and tougher sentences. It’s harder. Judges are better prepared. Prosecutors are usually better prepared and, you know, they’re usually pretty tough.
What do you think was your most difficult case?
It would be a United States v. (Samy) Hamzeh. It was a case in Milwaukee where a client was trapped after four or five months of the FBI having two informants working on him daily. We fought this case for six years. And we appealed. It was a huge deal. number two would be State c. (Mark) Jensen. This is the Gone Girl case. So I did the habeas appeal, the habeas case where we were able to overturn his conviction.
What has been the most satisfying?
This was the case, Ronnie Wells, and my client was a scientist. He had graduated last high school, and while picturing him, I realized he was actually a genius. He had all that potential unlocked. So I was able to get him into the MATC and then into the university during the performance. And he was sentenced, despite three previous drug convictions, to probation. The judge left the bench and shook his hand. He was so proud of the man he had become. He now works in the field of information technology.
What’s the best part of the job?
The best part of the job is that I’m able to help someone at the lowest point in their life. And not only guide them through this lowest point and give them hope, but also I am able to recognize and defend their dignity throughout this process.
Apart from your work, what else do you like to do?
Playing with my children and being with my wife. It’s kind of my life. I love my family. I am blessed with the biggest family I could ever ask for. So whenever I’m not at work, I’m usually with them.