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.