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.