Incumbent Sixth Judicial District (Knox County) Public Defender Eric Lutton has been challenged in the Republican Primary by private attorney Rhonda Lee.
They were two of more than a dozen GOP candidates, and spokespeople for candidates, seeking support while briefly addressing the monthly gathering of Concord-Farragut Republican Club, at Fruition Cafe in West End Center, during a special candidates forum Thursday, Feb. 6.
Early voting continues in Farragut and throughout Knox County through Tuesday, Feb. 25. A week later, Tuesday, March 3, the GOP and Democratic Primaries will decide who joins Independent candidates on the August General Election ballot.
Appointed by Gov. Bill Lee as 6th Judicial District Public Defender in October 2019, Lutton said he has experience “in a mixture of federal, state and criminal defense.” That was “about six-and-a-half years prior to being approached to see if I would be interested” in joining Community Law Office, which he did in 2013.
In 2015 Lutton was promoted, “which put me as a direct supervisor for a third of the office. The office has a staff of 71 total employees and 28 lawyers on staff,” he said. “We are by far the largest criminal defense firm in town, and one of the largest law firms in town.”
Later named deputy Public Defender, “That put me as No. 2 in charge of the office,” Lutton said, with responsibilities including “budgeting, hiring — and unfortunately sometimes, firing.
“… It takes experience to know how to run an organization like that,” he added.
Concerning the appointment vetting process before the governor, “There’s a very lengthy, intensive interview process and application process,” which also included “an interview with the governor himself,” Lutton said.
Unlike a private attorney “with a handful of cases and a couple of courts to be in,” Lutton said he is experienced handling a public defender’s task, “which is vastly different, walking into court with 25 cases on the docket sometimes.”
He cited a “survey of all the members of the Knoxville Bar Association, and I overwhelmingly was selected as the most qualified candidate” among “95 percent” who responded.
Saying she is “a private attorney going on seven years,” Lee said she represents those “who can’t afford an attorney to make sure to protect their Constitutional rights and to make sure that everybody gets treated fairly in the justice system.
“… I have at least 15 or more people that I’m representing every day,” she added. “In six courts I’m running around. By 11 o’clock I’ve already got my 10,000 steps in.”
A businesswoman prior to becoming an attorney, Lee made it clear she “can run and manage employees.
“But I think the most important thing about this job is we need a conservative Republican in there,” she added. “I’m a diehard Republican. This office has never had a real, conservative Republican.”
Lee began her address pointing out a few of her conservative Republican beliefs.
“One of the most important questions people ask me, believe it or not, ‘are you pro-life?’ I am absolutely pro-life,” she said.
“I believe (citizens) should be able to carry their guns,” Lee added. “And I also believe in having prayer in schools, and standing up when we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and giving our ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’”
Losing in a previous run at this office to former Public Defender Mark Stephens, who stepped down in fall 2019, “It takes a lot of courage to step out and say, ‘I’m going to go against that,’” Lee said.
“Why? Because I’m not part of the establishment.
“I’m an attorney who goes to fight for people every day,” she added.