Lutton, Lee vie for public defender post

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Eric Lutton and Rhonda Lee spoke Jan. 16 at the Powell Republican Club. Both are candidates for public defender, a job held for almost 30 years by Mark Stephens, who retired Oct. 31.


Gov. Bill Lee interviewed applicants to replace Stephens. Both Lutton and Lee applied. Lutton was chosen.

Rhonda Lee says simply, “We should elect people in government. It does matter.”

She spoke briefly, saying she was recovering from the flu. She has a compelling personal story. The mother of six, she worked as a real estate agent for 20 years while raising her kids. She already had a degree from the University of Tennessee, and decided to get a law degree. Accepted into the Nashville School of Law, she commuted to the night school for four years, according to her Facebook page. Halfway through the program, she was diagnosed with cancer. She persevered and received her law degree in 2012.

As a cancer survivor, she is passionate to help those who cannot help themselves. Her quote: “Fair justice is for all including those who do not have money and have mental illness.”

Lee has lived in Powell for 34 years. She says indigent defense is not for the money or the glory, but it’s what she has done while in private practice. If elected public defender she will have a greater opportunity to serve.

Eric Lutton also lives in north Knox County. His wife, Katie, is principal of Holston Middle School where their older daughter attends. Their younger daughter attends Brickey-McCloud.

After law school, Lutton wanted to work as a prosecutor, he said. He applied with Atty. Gen. Randy Nichols and his assistant John Gill, but they had no openings and told him to come back after the first of the year. He nailed up a shingle and started handling defense cases.

Just starting out, he had more time than clients. So he started talking to his clients, listening to their stories. He came to believe “we have to help the people in our community who are damaged.”

He never went back to the DA’s office. Instead, he was recruited to join the public defenders office. “I started working in veterans court and in recovery court. We have to help the people who want to be helped. It’s better for all of us.”

Lutton challenged Lee’s suggestion that Stephens ran without opposition because nobody wanted his job. “Mark Stephens built an award-winning office,” he said, with other jurisdictions coming to see and learn about the program in Knox County. The office has 27 lawyers and 71 total staff, including clerks. As chief deputy and now as public defender, Lutton said he knows all aspects of the operation. “I’ve been running the office for a while.”

Four important Knox County offices will be filled March 3 in the Republican Primary. No Democratic candidates qualified for the countywide ballot, although someone might attempt nomination by write-in.

Voters will select a law director, public defender, judge for Criminal Court Division II and property assessor. Early voting starts Feb. 12.

Candidates for law director, Cathy Quist Shanks and David Buuck, are profiled in a separate story. February speakers will be Tina Marshall and John Whitehead, candidates for property assessor, and Judge Kyle Hixson and Wesley Stone, candidates for judge of Criminal Court Division II.

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