Staff Photo by La Shawn Pagán / Tennessee 10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes, who plans to retire at the end of his current term, talks about his career, his legacy and his plans for the future in his office on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021.

After serving for 32 years in Tennessee's 10th Judicial District public defender's office, Richard Hughes said he will not run for re-election next year, calling it the right time to retire on his own terms.

"Being a public defender is the most difficult position in the entire criminal justice system," Hughes said. "To me, it takes special kinds of people to do that work. They obviously have to be very talented attorneys, but it's also social work, so you do both and you need skills in both."

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Hughes began his career as an assistant public defender after graduating from the University of Memphis' Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in May 1989. He went to work in his hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee, where he has represented clients in Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. In 2005, Hughes was appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen to fill the public defender role, winning a contested election the following year to remain.

"It was a good experience, and it was a difficult experience, because it's hard work. You gotta run in four counties, three of which people don't know who you are. I survived that election," he said.

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Longtime Cleveland, Tenn., public defender Richard Hughes retiring

He's held the position of public defender ever since.

"I am proud of my office and my part of making the criminal justice system better," he said.

He was a founding member of the 10th Judicial District Recovery Treatment Court, the Bradley County Juvenile Recovery Court and the 10th Judicial District Mental Health Court. He called them "very important" alternatives to the criminal justice system.

"It's not one size fits all," he said.

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Hughes also helped create the Bradley County Brian K. Smith Inmate Workhouse, where nonviolent inmates are released during the day to work around the county.

More recently, Hughes said he has worked to find ways to keep his offices open to make sure clients' needs are met amid the ongoing pandemic.

Stephen Crump, the 10th Judicial District attorney general, who has worked on many cases with Hughes over his career, had good things to say about their work together.

"He always represented his clients zealously and was a very good advocate for the rights of his clients and their position. I always appreciated the fact that he did the best to see what was not only his clients' side, but both sides of the argument, and then try to decide what was in the best interest of his client," Crump said in a telephone interview.

"I wish him the very best on a well-deserved retirement," he said. "He leaves the office with very good people to carry on what he has accomplished."

Hughes said he hopes his successor continues to provide consistency and stability in the office. Donald Leon Shahan Jr., assistant public defender, who has worked with Hughes for almost 10 years, is the only person so far to announce a bid for the position. However, if anyone else decides to run, Hughes wants his successor to remember one thing.

"Don't forget what your role is and who you're responsible toward," he said. "I like this quote by [author] Sam Quñones: 'We need to attend the most vulnerable; we are only as strong as the least of us,'" he said.

"It's been a very good career for me here, but to avoid stagnation, to avoid complacency, I want to pursue some other opportunities that are out there," Hughes said, including possibly teaching at a local college or doing family law mediation work.

"My goal is not to just go out to pasture, but to try other things," he said.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.