Sitting Public Defender for the 21st Judicial District Greg Burlison is seeking election in 2022.
He was appointed to the position last year with 15 years of legal defense experience after Vanessa Bryan retired.
Burlison has been practicing law since 2006 and previously served as the Assistant Public Defender before he was appointed to his current position by Gov. Bill Lee in November 2020.
“I could not be more excited to announce my candidacy,” Burlison said in a news release. “I am honored to lead an amazing office of dedicated indigent defense professionals and humbly seek the opportunity to continue in this capacity. I feel strongly about the valuable role our office plays in ensuring fairness both in the courtroom and in the greater criminal justice discussion.”
Burlison sat down for an interview with the Williamson Home Page about his year-long experience in the role and how his office of 10 attorneys aims to continue to serve the public and “zealously represent each and every client to the best of our ability.”
“When I started law school, I kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do with my law degree, but I didn’t know exactly what that looked like in action, so I was fortunate enough to get a clerkship with the public defender's office in Knoxville and after that first day I think I was convinced that I’d found my professional calling. I was really struck by the camaraderie, the feeling of the united purpose of the office,” Burlison said.
“I was intrigued by the intellectual aspect of it, developing the defense of the case, looking at the constitutional issues, insuring that the constitutional rights are being protected, the suppression issues, performing our own investigation of the case independent from law enforcement — looking at it from the client’s perspective and the client’s best interest — but even more than that, it felt like it was something that was providing an important service.”
Burlison said that he and his office are committed to ensuring the constitutional rights of the accused, noting that the office aims to provide the same quality of defense for clients regardless of their economic or social status.
“We meet our clients in often times maybe the worst difficult time of their life and it’s a complex system, it’s overwhelming, and we’re able to walk them through the system, help explain it to them, help them understand the pitfalls, what’s in their best interest, what’s not in their best interest,” Burlison said. “We’re certainly empathetic to victims and victim’s families, but we feel strongly, and the constitution requires, that everyone is entitled to an advocate when liberty or freedom is at stake, and we feel honored to be able to be that advocate.”
Burlison said that economic and social factors are often causes or components of crime, and said that his office includes a social worker and works to connect clients in need with a variety of social services, such as drug treatment, to help reduce the root causes of crime.
With the rise of social media has come the rise of public awareness of the realities and challenges of the criminal justice system, an awareness that Burlison said will hopefully lead to society choosing to be smart on crime rather than just tough on crime.
“A lot of people who are incarcerated shouldn't be there," Burlison said. "They’re there because of factors such as substance abuse and mental health that they just haven’t gotten the appropriate treatment for, and other factors of poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, illiteracy — other things that make them more vulnerable to the system and becoming involved in the system. Just seeing what’s led to that and hopefully kind of focusing in on the solution and looking a little more deeper than maybe we have in the past.”
“Sometimes our clients do bad things, dumb things, and we want to help find out the reasons why,” Burlison said.
Burlison said that his office has some clients who are innocent, while others are overcharged by law enforcement, and added that his office works hard to make sure that the charges and possible punishment matches the reality of any actual crime.
“The 21st Judicial District is fortunate to have such an honorable, accomplished barrister as its Public Defender,” Franklin attorney, and Burlison’s campaign treasurer Robert H. Hassell said in the news release. “Greg Burlison is respected by the courts for his hard work and zealous defense of those persons without the means to afford private counsel.”
Burlison, who lives in Fairview, currently serves as a hearing committee member for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility and on the 21st District Recovery Court Administrative Team, and he is a past recipient of the President’s Award from the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference as well as the Friend of the 21st District Recovery Court Award.
“We wake up every morning trying to provide as good of a defense for our clients as they would get if they had all the money in the world,” Burlison said.
“The goal is obviously focusing on each individual case, and if what we do throughout that case ensures that they don’t come back into the courthouse, that’s a success for us.”