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: