Shelby County Celebrates 100 Years of Public Defense

 Memphis is Home to the Third Oldest Public Defender System in the Country

“I do solemnly swear that I will support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Tennessee, and the charter of the County of Shelby, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my profession to the best of my ability.”

That was the oath administered for a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony of the entire staff of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby.  The event was held to honor the office’s 100 years of service to the people of Shelby County.


“I’ve never the seen the whole office assembled. It’s impressive.”   – Dean Peter Letsou, University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

When Dean Letsou welcomed the lawyers and professional staff of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office to the Law School he was speaking to the largest criminal defense law firm in Tennessee. It is by far the busiest. Our office of more than 85 lawyers defends 35,000 people each year.

The Centennial Celebration was an event designed to honor a century of public defense in Memphis and to give dignity to the work defenders do every day, work that is often not recognized for its critical role in ensuring the integrity of the criminal justice system. Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr. spoke before the office to acknowledge the fine work of Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush and his staff.

“We truly have a public defender’s office that stands tall across the country.”  –  Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr.

Former Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton was the keynote speaker for the event.  Wharton also played a major role in shaping the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office — he led the office as its public defender for more than twenty years.

“You don’t do this work for the salary. You do it for the justice. You stand for justice. When it comes to the bar for justice, you ensure that all people are equal.”  – the Honorable A C Wharton, former public defender and mayor of both Memphis and Shelby County.

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The Centennial was also marked with a joint resolution by Tennessee’s 110th General Assembly to honor the public defender’s office.  We are grateful to the hard work of TN Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) for sponsoring HJR177 and providing our office with a framed copy to mark this historic landmark.

National defense advocacy groups from across the country sent letters of appreciation and congratulations to the Shelby County Public Defenders.


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This year, we commemorate the centennial year of our office, and gather to acknowledge those who struggle to keep the promise that every person facing loss of liberty has the right to an effective attorney. We honor those who have served before us, but I also celebrate you – the lawyers and legal professionals who will step forward 40,000 times this year to provide that zealous defense here in Shelby County.

All Americans believe in the idea of justice. But too often, justice is viewed as an outcome — an arrest, a conviction, a sentence. You — the lawyers, the investigators, the administrative staff, the social workers, the law clerks, the mitigation specialists – you know that justice isn’t about outcome. It’s about the daily struggle to ensure that that fundamental fairness is protected, and that every person facing a loss of liberty is treated with dignity and respect.

In Memphis, we have been struggling with the idea of justice for a long time. It was certainly a radical idea in 1917 when Memphian and Tennessee state Sen. Samuel O. Bates introduced legislation that created the first public defender office east of the Mississippi River, and only the third in the nation, right here in Shelby County.

Nearly 50 years later, Memphis native Abe Fortas stepped before the U. S. Supreme Court and argued that you cannot have a fair trial unless the defendant has an attorney. The court unanimously agreed, and on March 18, 1963, declared the right to counsel fundamental to fairness.

Shelby County got it right here nearly 100 years ago when visionary leaders embraced the radical idea that people facing incarceration in Shelby County deserved the help of an attorney, regardless of ability to pay — and they got it right decades before the U.S. Supreme Court demanded the same for all Americans in Gideon v. Wainright  in 1963.

Memphian Abe Fortas got it right, too, and may have said it best. In 1966, by then an associate Supreme Court justice, he wrote in Kent v. U.S.: “The right to counsel is not a formality. It is not a grudging gesture to ritualistic requirement. It is the essence of justice.”

Be proud this community helped pioneer this right to justice. As we begin our second century of public defense, we should again dedicate ourselves to the struggle to make the radical idea of justice in Memphis, a reality.

It is my honor and pleasure to serve with you.

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender


Photos by Q3 Creations

We thank Just City for sponsoring the reception following the event and the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law for donating its historic courtroom and scenic fourth floor for our special event.

If you are interested in the fascinating history of our office, watch this animated video by Prodigi Arts.

Legendary Civil Rights Organization Looks to Public Defenders to Fight Mass Incarceration

Nearly fifty years after his assassination in this city, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reignited King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis at their 59th annual convention.

One of the key initiatives will be raising funding, support and awareness on behalf of public defenders through a partnership with Gideon’s Promise, the Atlanta based training program dedicated to building the next generation of public defenders.

SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele, Jr. announced a formal partnership with Gideon’s Promise during the convention’s opening ceremony.

“Our struggle for civil and human rights is far from finished. Nowhere is this truer than in our criminal justice system. It is a system that is almost exclusively reserved for the poor and disproportionately for black and brown people,” said Dr. Steele.  “Public defenders serve as the advocates for these men, women, and children. If they do not have support, they cannot help our most vulnerable communities fight back against this unjust system.”

Gideon’s Promise founder, Jon Rapping, spoke at the convention and called the criminal justice system one of our country’s most vital pieces of unfinished civil rights work. He said that with more resources and support, public defenders can be on the front lines of this fight.

“Public defenders are almost completely overlooked in our national conversation about criminal justice reform. This omission is fatal to a comprehensive strategy to have equal justice,” said Rapping. “We are grateful to Dr. Steele for recognizing the critical role public defenders must play in this important civil rights struggle and for inviting us to partner with SCLC to transform criminal justice in America.”

Rapping said that Memphis is one of its largest partner cities. Nearly a third of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office has taken part in Gideon’s Promise training. Lawyers from our office attending the event were asked to stand and be recognized.

“These people work every day to honor this critically important civil rights work,” said Rapping.

In a joint press release, Gideon’s Promise and the SCLC outlined the goals of the partnership: To provide training and support for public defenders,  raise awareness of the critical role public defenders must play in a broader strategy to transform criminal justice in America, and build strong partnerships between public defenders and the communities they serve.

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Memphis Filmmakers Want More Eyes on the Juvenile Justice System

Pair gather stories from across the country to create a feature film.

Sarah Fleming and Joann Self-Selvidge filming for a story about juvenile defenders

When the U.S. Department of Justice released a stinging investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court in April of 2012, juvenile justice advocates around the nation took notice. The charges were damning — systematic violation of the due process rights of children and and failure to offer equal protection to African American children.

Independent filmmakers Joann Self Selvidge and Sarah Fleming took notice, too.  During the course of the last few years, the pair have met with children, family members and advocates involved with the juvenile justice system to record their stories. Self Selvidge and Fleming have also partnered with the National Juvenile Defenders Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center to broaden the scope of their work beyond Memphis.

“Through eliciting personal narratives, the filmmakers also hope to illustrate the school to prison pipeline, which criminalizes bad behavior at school and disproportionately affects black students, a group that is nearly 3.5 times more likely to be arrested at school than their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.” – High Ground News


Read the full story of their journey to raise awareness about the juvenile justice system in the online publication, High Ground News: 

“Memphis Filmmakers Shine a Light on the Juvenile Justice System”


Watch this story about one of our own Assistant Shelby County Public Defender’s working in the Juvenile Defender Unit: