Phyllis Aluko named new chief public defender

By Published: March 19, 2019 2:56 PM CT

For the first time in the 102-year history of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, an African-American woman will lead the agency.

Assistant Public Defender Phyllis Aluko has been chosen by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris to be the chief public defender, a job recently vacated with the retirement last month of long-time Public Defender Stephen Bush.

The Shelby County Commission has to approve the appointment.

Aluko, who has been with the public defender’s office for 25 years, will be the 11th chief public defender and lead one of the oldest and largest public defense systems in the country.

She graduated from law school at the University of Pittsburgh and will be in charge of an office with more than 140 defense attorneys who represent indigent defendants charged in criminal court cases.

“The Law Office of the Shelby County Public Defender has a long legacy of standing up for vulnerable residents in Memphis and Shelby County,” Paul Morris said in a release from Harris' office. “I worked with the mayor to identify someone who is ethical, hard-working and respected by their peers and community. Ms. Aluko is dedicated to Shelby County and will be an exceptional leader of the Public Defender’s Office.”

Aluko began her career as a volunteer in the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office before working in the trial division for 10 years, according to the release.

She moved up the ranks and served as a division leader in the trial division. She then transferred to the appellate division and became the first woman and first African-American to serve as a supervisor of the appellate team.

Aluko expressed gratitude for the appointment.

“For over 25 years, I have dedicated my career to protecting the rights of indigent people who have been charged with committing a criminal offense,” Aluko said in an emailed statement. “I care about improving our indigent defense system, and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve residents of Shelby County as the new public defender.”

Aluko graduated from Whitehaven High School. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She went on to earn her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1992.

She is on the board of directors for the Memphis Bar Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Memphis Bar Association.

She is also a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, where she earned the President’s Award in 2008 and 2016. Aluko is a 2016 graduate of the Leadership Memphis FastTrack program.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is the third-oldest public defender system in the country. The office represents more than 25,000 adults and children each year from general sessions court to the U.S. Supreme Court.

<strong>Phyllis Aluko</strong>

Phyllis Aluko


Shelby County Public Defender's Office Lee Harris Stephen Bush
Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones

Yolanda Jones covers criminal justice issues and general assignment news for The Daily Memphian. She previously was a reporter at The Commercial Appeal.

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