On Monday, March 25th, the Shelby County Commission made history when it unanimously approved Phyllis Aluko as the first female Chief Public Defender of Shelby County.
Phyllis Aluko will lead one of the largest and oldest public defender systems in the country. The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office was established in 1917, then only the third public defense system in the country. It predates by nearly 50 years the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision, which established public defense systems across the country. The office of more than 90 attorneys and 30 support staff represent 25,000 adults and children each year.
At her confirmation hearing, Aluko acknowledged those who have paved the way for female leadership in public defense, namely Clara Shortridge Foltz, who wrote a model bill in the 1890s for the adoption of a public defense system in California. The Foltz plan was adopted in 1913 in California, making the Los Angeles office the first public defense system in the United States.
“Foltz believed the law should be a shield, as well as a sword. That there should be a defender for every prosecutor,” said Chief Phyllis Aluko. “What she described in her model bill was client-centered defense. If confirmed, I would continue to promote client centered representation for every client, for every case.”
Aluko began with the office as a volunteer and has been with the Shelby County Public Defenders for more than 25 years. She served in the Trial Division for 10 years and moved up to Division Leader. Aluko later transferred to the Appellate Division and would become the first woman and the first African-American to serve as supervisor of the Appellate Division.
She is a graduate of Whitehaven High School in Memphis, received her bachelor of arts from the University of Pennsylvania and her J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Aluko is on the board of directors of the Memphis Bar Association and is also a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association.
Aluko was nominated by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. She takes the helm after the former Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush retired in February, after more than eight years in office.
“My goal is to put into place individuals who are mission driven,” said Mayor Lee Harris. ” I’m looking to put into place people who want to serve this community. Ms. Aluko is such an individual.”
After her nomination was unanimously approved by the Shelby County Commission, Aluko received a standing ovation. A number of her colleagues from the office were present at the vote to show their support for this historic nomination.