Former U.S. Attorney Brings Career Full Circle with Shelby County Public Defender’s Office

Veronica Coleman-Davis retires from Juvenile Defender Unit

Veronica Coleman-Davis on Open Society Institute panel.
Veronica Coleman-Davis on Open Society Institute panel.

It was 1975 when she first came to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, Veronica Coleman-Davis had just graduated from the Memphis State University School of Law (now the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law). After a short stint as a part-time attorney, Coleman-Davis was hired full-time, making her the first female assistant public defender in Shelby County. This month, the former U.S. Attorney will bring to a close four decades of distinguished service right back where she started — at the public defender’s office, but this time, in juvenile defense.

“It was humbling that Veronica Coleman-Davis, a former U.S. Attorney and pioneering female attorney in Memphis and across the state, chose to come back to public defense,” said Chief Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush. “Not only did she want to come back to our office, she wanted the challenge of advocating for children caught in the criminal justice system. It was an honor that such a notable figure in our legal community lent her wisdom and service to the formation of the Juvenile Defender Unit.”

It should come as no surprise that Coleman-Davis chose to take part in such a difficult endeavor. After all, she’s spent a lifetime breaking new ground in Tennessee.  After becoming the first female assistant public defender in Shelby County, Coleman-Davis went on to become a founding partner of the first all-female law firm in Tennessee in 1977. Several years later, she was hired as the first black female Assistant District Attorney for Shelby County. She would also be appointed the first black female Juvenile Court referee in Tennessee.

But it was in 1993 that Coleman-Davis would make national history — that’s when she was sworn in as the first black and first female U.S. Attorney in Tennessee, only the third black female U.S. Attorney in the country.  Coleman also founded the National Institute for Law & Equity with 12 fellow African-American U.S. Attorneys to focus on fair and equal treatment for all people in the criminal justice system and then testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee about sentencing disparities in crack cocaine cases.

Juvenile Defender Unit party for Coleman-Davis retirement

In 2014, Coleman-Davis chose to return to the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. This time, she joined an office with far more female colleagues – in fact, nearly 40% of the lawyers in the office are women. The challenge that drew her back to the office more than 30 years later was juvenile justice. Coleman-Davis wanted to be part of the new Juvenile Defender Unit, established in an agreement with the Department of Justice to help remedy due process and equal protection violations in the Shelby County Juvenile Court.

“I was honored to be able to serve on the first Juvenile Court Shelby County Public Defender team,” said Coleman-Davis. “It has been one of the highlights of my years of practice to work with talented and caring attorneys and staff.  I look forward to the time when the SCPD gets national recognition for the impact they are making on behalf of youth who come into the juvenile justice system.”

Coleman-Davis continues to serve on the board of Mothers of the NILE, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of children entering Shelby County’s juvenile justice system. She is past president of this non-profit, a spin-off program of the National Institute for Institute & Equity that was founded by Coleman-Davis.  She also chairs the liturgy committee for Holy Names of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church.

Read with Us in the JustCity Book Club

Bryan Stevenson, Author

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation.”

— Archbishop Desmond Tutu

We have long admired the work of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. So when we read his new book, ‘Just Mercy,’ we did not expect to be even more moved by the difficult path he has chosen: challenging the death penalty, prison sentences for children and the incarceration of those with mental illness.

We also did not think we could be more outraged by the brokenness of the criminal justice system, until reading Stevenson’s moving account of the men, women and children he has stood beside during his decades-long struggle for justice.

But most importantly, we did not expect to feel such hope — to see that with great personal sacrifice and perseverance, one person can and has changed the system.

That’s why we invite you to read ‘Just Mercy’ with us and then have a discussion about the important work being done by Bryan Stevenson at Equal Justice Initiative, public defenders in Memphis and advocates around the country. Pick up a copy at Burke’s Book Store or at The Booksellers at Laurelwood and sign up at the link below to have your book club considered.

We’ll choose one book club each month. An attorney from the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender will join your club to answer questions about the criminal justice system that Stevenson explores in Just Mercy and discuss what we can all do to make Memphis a more just community.


Just Mercy Cover


Sign Up for the JustCity Book Club Here!

Shelby County Public Defenders Named 2014 Memphis Bar Foundation Fellows

2014 Memphis Bar FoundationEach has served indigent clients in the Memphis area for more than two decades — now assistant Shelby County Public Defenders Jack Green and James Etta Rayford have been named Fellows of the Memphis Bar Foundation.  Green and Rayford were recognized at a November event in Downtown Memphis.

Green has been a public defender for 26 years and is a supervising attorney for the office. Currently, he serves as the Director of Performance Metrics for the public defender’s office. Green collects case data that help manage attorney workloads.

He is also the head of the Justice System Administration, which tracks client movement through the criminal justice system, monitors progress and identifies delays.

Rayford has practiced public defense for the past 24 years. Most recently, she joined the Juvenile Defender Unit, a highly-specialized division of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office which represents children in juvenile court.  Rayford chose to serve on the new unit soon after it was established in 2013. The new defender unit was developed to help meet the agreement between Shelby County government, Shelby County Juvenile Court and the Department of Justice.

After the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ found due process and equal protection violations at Juvenile Court, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was called upon to provide attorneys for the defense of children and to supervise the defense function of Shelby County’s juvenile justice system.

Members of the Memphis Bar Foundation elect fellows based on ethics and professionalism.  Eligible nominees must have practiced law at least 10 years. The Memphis Bar Foundation is the charitable arm of the Memphis Bar Association.