Knox County’s most progressive officeholder moves on

Betty BeanKnox Scene, Our Town Leaders

Mark Stephens is a soft-spoken guy who smiles often and easily. But don’t let that fool you – there’s steel in that backbone sufficient to mold the position to which he was elected in 1990 into the most progressive public office in Knoxville, probably ever. Its proper name, the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, hints at a broader purpose than simply cutting plea-bargaining deals.

And even though he’ll be retiring as Knox County’s first and only elected public defender on Oct. 31, he’s not out shopping for rocking chairs. He’s moving on to a new challenge.

Mark Stephens

Stephens will go back to practicing law and will also be working with the Justice Initiative’s Holistic Legal Incubator, providing training for baby lawyers and social workers who want to be involved in the criminal justice system. He’s the founder of the Justice Initiative, and the HLI will follow the holistic model Stephens pioneered in public office. Here’s an excerpt from the organization’s statement of purpose:

“The mission of the HLI is to develop practitioners who are motivated to learn how to engage in client-centered, holistic practice and who intend to offer meaningful and dignified assistance to clients through inter-professional collaboration to ensure the best possible legal and life outcomes.

“The goal is to work toward addressing the ‘whole client’ through a wraparound approach that offers criminal and civil legal services along with social service assistance.

“Lawyers participating in the program are committed to developing client-centered, holistic practices that are accessible, socially conscious and affordable.”

Not the usual Republican ‘Get tough and hang ‘em high’ stuff, right? Stephens is not the usual Republican.

He says that joining the party was a condition of his job as a prosecutor for the late Attorney General Ed Dossett, who required all his employees to get active in the GOP. Bad as this might sound today, it was standard courthouse practice in those days. Most officeholders did it and nobody raised a stink.

So, Stephens joined the Norwood Republican Club and got to know people in the Knox County Republican Party right around the time the state started moving toward installing a public defender program, which went statewide in 1989. Knox County was slow to opt in, and didn’t do so until after the 1990 primary elections were done, leaving the two major parties scrambling to choose candidates for the August election, which pitted Stephens against a Democrat and an independent. Ugly slurs against Stephens’ wife, Lynette, who is African American, marked the contest but Stephens won decisively and was assisted in his campaign by the likes of party stalwarts Richard Bean and Tim Burchett.

“I don’t have any political clout,” Stephens said. “I’m here by virtue of the fact that the Republican Party wanted me to be here, and they’ve never interfered. I’m very thankful for that.”

But after the election, things got really tough.

“The first Tuesday in August I got elected. That Friday, Randy Nichols (then a Criminal Court judge) appointed me to the Richard Tate case – a death penalty case, I didn’t have an office, I didn’t have a secretary, I didn’t have a business card, but I had a death case. I worked as hard as you can possibly work, seven days a week,” he said.

And it didn’t let up. He took office on Sept.1 with a staff of seven lawyers. By December 1991, his office had 12,000 cases. His plight captured national attention, which peaked when a reporter from the New York Times asked about the marked-up 90-day calendar on the wall behind Stephens’ desk.

“He asked me, ‘Do you realize you have 90 trials in the next 90 days?’”

The following year, Stephens filed for caseload relief, and Judge Bobby McGee decreed that every licensed lawyer in town would be assigned a pro bono case. This included Mayor Victor Ashe and everyone in TVA’s legal department.

“I do remember getting a lot of panicked phone calls from TVA,” Stephens said. “Shortly after that, our staff was doubled, and TVA called and asked us to take the cases back. When I did, I was so incredibly impressed with the amount of work they’d put in. They realized the severity of what they were doing and approached it with the appropriate amount of professional zeal, including traveling across the state to investigate their clients’ cases.”

Stephens achieved many milestones during his years in office. He is proud of the inviting, light-filled building on Liberty Street that former County Executive Tommy Schumpert (a Democrat) and his executive assistant Molly Pratt made possible in 2003, and of the fact that the county has paid off all but three years of a 17-year note. When the note is paid, the building will become a financial asset to the county, assuming the state continues its $120,000 annual contribution.

Stephens is a pretty modest guy and doesn’t mention his long list of personal honors, which include serving as president of the Tennessee District Public Defender’s Conference, chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission, chair of the National Association for Public Defense and serving on the Board of Gideon’s Promise (formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center). He has been awarded the Stephen B. Bright Award in recognition of his contributions to improving the quality of indigent defense in the South and is an adjunct professor of Trial Advocacy at the University of Tennessee College of Law, where he has also received awards. There’s more, but he’d probably be embarrassed to see them recited here.

One thing Stephens doesn’t mind talking about is his family, starting with wife Lynette, a behavioral specialist with Knox County Schools. They have three daughters: Jessica, Lizzie and Madeline, who just graduated from UT and was selected a Torchbearer.

Finally, it will be up to the governor to name Stephens’ successor. He said he has met with Gov. Bill Lee’s deputy and legal advisor Lang Wiseman (who played basketball at UT in the early ’90s). Stephens doesn’t volunteer his opinion as to who should fill the appointment, but it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be pulling for Deputy District Public Defender Eric Lutton to get the job.

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