Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush Announces Retirement

After 27-years of working to protect the rights of those facing incarceration and unable to pay for counsel, Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush is announcing his retirement.

“It has been the honor of my professional life to serve. Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy than the Constitutional promise of impartial and fair justice for every American.  That’s why I am proud to have been part of the Public Defender’s Office and prouder still to work with the dedicated men and women known nationally for their high-quality and zealous legal representation for people who lack the means to afford a lawyer.”

Bush was appointed Chief Public Defender in 2010 by Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell at the start of his administration. Before that, Bush served for 19 years in the office as an assistant public defender.

“I’ve always said that Stephen Bush is one of the most altruistic public servants you’ll ever meet,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. “He has poured himself into this work because he earnestly wants Shelby County to be a better place for all of its citizens. I’m proud to have appointed Bush as the Public Defender and because of his dedication, we truly have a public defender’s office that stands tall across the country.”

During his tenure, Bush and his leadership team have worked with the support of the Luttrell administration to develop the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender into a modern legal practice.

Some of the most critical advances during this term include:

  • Securing increased funding at the state and local level to build the office into the largest criminal defense firms in West Tennessee with more than 140 attorneys and professional staff serving more than 35,000 people each year;
  • Creating a specialized Juvenile Defender practice with highly trained lawyers, investigators and social workers to advocate for Shelby County children and their families;
  • Reorganizing the office structure and implementing performance management systems to provide Memphis with modern public defense services;
  • Partnering with the University of Memphis School of Law to create the Children’s Defense Clinic, which offers students specialized training in adolescent development and provides additional, supervised representation for children facing delinquency charges in Juvenile Court; 
  • Positioning of the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender as a leader among progressive public defender offices who are transforming public defense, allowing the firm to recruit talented lawyers from Memphis and some of the most heralded law schools in the U.S.;
  • Passing of a state resolution and marking of the Centennial of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, the third oldest public defense system in the country.

“The leadership of our organization, as well as those who lead our member organizations, look to Memphis for its legacy and innovative approaches to serving its community,” said Ernie Lewis, Executive Director of National Association for Public Defense (NAPD).  “As a founding partner of the NAPD, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is one of the leading voices in the movement to improve and advocate for high quality public defense systems across the U.S.”

As an assistant public defender, Bush was the chief architect of the Jericho Project, a jail diversion program that continues to help people with serious mental illnesses from cycling through the system. He was recruited by then Chief Public Defender and former Shelby County and City of Memphis Mayor, A C Wharton, to create Jericho. The program has received national awards and serves as a model program across the country.

“Jericho would not be possible without his focus and sense of organization,” said A C Wharton of the time Jericho was under development. “You have to put a structure there. Stephen worked every day as if he might leave, so if he left the next day, it would not die. The structure would be there to be institutionalized and carried on. And because of that, Jericho is here to this day and it’s renowned throughout the nation. Just as Memphis and Shelby County pioneered the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) for policing – which is now universally recognized — Jericho is similarly recognized for how we help individuals in the system dealing with mental illness.”

“The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is one of the most organized public defender offices you’ll find anywhere,” added Wharton. “We’re one of the oldest in the nation and with that maturity comes the need to set the standard – not merely for this office but public defender offices everywhere. That’s what will be left behind in his retirement.”

In 2012, after the U.S. Department of Justice released a stinging report alleging the Shelby County Juvenile Court of systematically violating the due process rights of children and failing to offer equal protection to African American children, Bush delved into juvenile justice. The public defender’s office had not represented children for more than three decades. In response to the DOJ report, Bush secured funding and training to develop the Juvenile Defender Unit. The unit now represents more than half of the children charged in delinquency cases. These teams of attorneys, social workers and investigators are trained in national best practices.

“Stephen Bush has worked harder than any other chief defender in America to build a properly functioning juvenile indigent defense system and specialized juvenile defender unit at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office in Memphis,” said Patricia Puritz, founder and retired Executive Director of the National Juvenile Defender Center. The NJDC is a nonprofit located in Washington, D.C., dedicated to promoting justice for all children by ensuring excellence in juvenile defense.

”So much positive change has occurred under his tenure,” said Puritz. “And despite the many challenges that remain, the rights of children in the justice system and the principles of fundamental fairness have been solidly advanced in Memphis.”

Bush was also instrumental in the launching of Just City, an independent, community, nonprofit dedicated to informing and changing local and state criminal justice policy and practice. He understood that the public defender acting alone could never address the deep, systemic problems in the criminal justice system. Bush, along with Just City founder Josh Spickler, convened a community of lawyers and activists to lay the groundwork for the concept. Just City is now an established, independent organization that in just three years has secured a place as a vital voice in criminal justice reform on the local and national level.

“Ours is a safer, healthier, and more just city because of Stephen Bush’s service to it,” said Josh Spickler, Executive Director of Just City. “For more than two decades, he has worked tirelessly for the forgotten and the marginalized and has inspired so many of us to do the same. Everything Just City has accomplished in the last three years is a direct result of Stephen’s bold leadership, creativity, and unwavering support.”

Bush’s commitment to fostering a culture of excellence  is reflected in the office’s five year partnership with Gideon’s Promise, a national nonprofit based in Atlanta dedicated to training  the next generation of public defenders. Today, a majority of the lawyers in the public defender’s office began their careers with a 3 year program of professional development that instills the values and skills essential to high quality and ethical defender services.

“Gideon’s Promise is proud to claim the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office as an anchor partner in our shared efforts to transform the culture of public defense,” said Gideon’s Promise founder Jon Rapping for the centennial celebration of the office.

Bush notified Mayor Luttrell in January of his plans to retire and will leave the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender pending the transitional needs of the new mayor’s administration.  

At 53-years old, Bush says the next chapter of his career will begin after a long planned sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Bush looks forward to opportunities to work with national partners on justice and policy issues that earned him a national reputation and that he has been passionate about for decades.  

“I am gratified by our strong record of advancing justice for the most vulnerable and I am confident that the county’s defender team is well prepared to continue its legacy of community-oriented defender services into a second century,” said Bush. “Most of all, I am grateful for the trust Mayor Luttrell has shown in me and also to the people of Shelby County for their support and pride in this legacy.”


Learn more about the legacy of the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office here:


Learn more about the Jericho Project in this award winning documentary: 

Shelby County Public Defender on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Tennessee

“Each morning, I slow down as I drive past the concrete blocks in downtown Memphis that once held up the Confederacy.

It has become a daily source of inspiration to reflect on the unrelenting courage, commitment and creativity that leaders in my community displayed to bring down monuments to oppression and inhumanity. Years of meetings, protests, threats, paperwork and political maneuvering culminated in the erasure of these public symbols of white supremacy.

As the Chief Public Defender for Shelby County, this gives me hope. It demonstrates that this community can make difficult change when there is a sustained will to confront injustice.

Razing racial disparities in our juvenile justice system will require the level of courage, commitment and creativity it took to bring down those statues — times 10. That sounds daunting, but Memphis is not alone in this fight. What is wrong here is wrong in communities across our state” — Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush, Commercial Appeal “Viewpoint”

This Tuesday, the Tennessee General Assembly convenes the 2018 legislative session. Over the next few months, we could see laws proposed that dramatically alter the way all children in Tennessee are treated, particularly youth  of color who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.  Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush was invited to contribute his perspective about a report recently issued by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice. The recommendations in this report could be used to create a more fair juvenile justice system and curb the number of school children referred to law enforcement.

You can read his entire column in the Commercial Appeal here.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.