TaShun Bowden-Lewis’ swearing-in as chief public defender closely resembled a graduation ceremony. On that summer day inside Connecticut’s Supreme Court chamber last year, there were callouts, claps, smiles and tears. The remarks were heartfelt and optimistic with a smidgen of humor.
“I’m so grateful, and it is an honor to serve in this position,” Bowden-Lewis, with her tangled white pearl necklaces resting around her neck, said to the crowd. “You know they say, and I firmly believe, I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
At age 49, she became the first Black person and, more specifically, the first Black woman to lead the Division of Public Defender Services, an agency more than a century old with hundreds of people dedicated to providing legal assistance to poor and low-income residents.
But a year later, the celebration is over. Bowden-Lewis’ goals to diversify the agency have received blowback from within. Several members of the commission that appointed her have resigned. Emails from employees have surfaced suggesting racism in the division. Some attorneys blame her for what they describe as a toxic work environment and inadequate responses to the needs of those in the courtroom. At public meetings, other lawyers have questioned both her credibility and integrity.
Aware that some of her decisions have faced intense scrutiny and condemnation, Bowden-Lewis is now speaking publicly about it for the first time.
In an exclusive interview with The Connecticut Mirror, she maintains that she has openly communicated her goals from day one and finds that much of the backlash has materialized in unexpected ways. The career attorney said she feels secure about the agency’s work in the last year but admits the noise has personally troubled her loved ones and even caused her to worry about job security.
“I’m still elated and joyful. But I’m also hit with daily negativity, daily situations that are defamatory, and that is exhausting,” Bowden-Lewis said.
The public narrative suggests her arrival was the catalyst for the troubles. But her supporters say many of the problems have long persisted. Absent from some people’s treatment of Bowden-Lewis, they say, is respect for her leadership.
“I was here for two white women that were previous chiefs. That never happened. There was never this undermining,” said Amy Baez, who works within the division’s financial unit and, in 2018, filed a discrimination complaint against the agency.
“I think it’s escalated because she’s a woman of color. It’s hard to not feel that way with some of the things that have been said by people,” added Daryl McGraw, who since early last year has spearheaded the division’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Now some are at a breaking point.
“Just like with our clients, we’re trying to focus on the fact that we need to see them as human beings, I’m human too. I have a family. I have a life,” Bowden-Lewis said. “This thing has a ripple effect. It affects those who are working for and with me and the people that we’re servicing every single day.”
Bowden-Lewis doesn’t consider herself political, nor have her previous duties called on her to be. Her career as a public defense attorney spans more than two decades. In the years before her appointment, she oversaw an office of public defenders in Waterbury, where she also spent time in the courtroom representing clients.
The transition from managing a tight-knit staff to leading a state agency of more than 400 different personalities has come with a learning curve, she said. But she never thought the challenges would rise to the current level. Neither did some of the people who’ve been around her.
“The allegations thrown around are not reflective of any of the experiences I’ve had with her,” said Rashad Glass, a public defender now in charge of the Waterbury field office that Bowden-Lewis previously led. “A lot of issues have been raised that have been ongoing for years. It’s just funny that now that she gets in office, all of a sudden it becomes an urgent problem that started with her.”
Prior to her arrival, the agency was at a crossroads. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a bevy of retirements, backlogged courts and increased workloads for lawyers throughout Connecticut. Public defenders working on a contractual basis hadn’t received a significant pay increase since 2007. As conversations continued about racial equity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the agency’s staff was 70% white in several departments, in a state where people of color make up the overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated.
In her first months on the job, Bowden-Lewis grew increasingly vocal about her three-prong vision to improve recruitment and retention to diversify staff, rebrand the division through community engagement and revitalize the agency to ensure workers feel valued.
Some attorneys understood the significance of and supported what she hoped to do.
“In the end, it is going to help us represent our clients,” said Damian Tucker, who supervises a field office of public defenders in Hartford. “The more the community trusts us, the more we’re able to do what we need to do, the more they’re going to be willing to help us do what we need to do.”
But it also ran into fierce opposition.
As first reported by The Hartford Courant, four members of the Public Defender Services Commission, a seven-person body that appoints the chief public defender and has some regulatory oversight over the agency, abruptly resigned earlier this year.
Their sudden departure came after Bowden-Lewis’ employment lawyer sent the commission a letter outlining concerns about — and discriminatory implications of — the alleged undermining of her decisions on hiring, management and spending.
An email from the division’s Racial Justice and Cultural Competency Committee later surfaced, calling on staff to withstand what some saw as racist efforts to undermine Bowden-Lewis and her goals to diversify the agency. The message protested the commission’s decision to bypass her list of candidates for a public defender job in Derby, which included people of color, in favor of a white woman.
Then a complaint from the agency’s former human resources director, Erin Ryan, described Bowden-Lewis as “unapproachable and aggressive” during their interactions and blamed her for creating a toxic work environment. Ryan, who did not respond to requests for comment, has been identified in lawsuits against the Metropolitan District Commission — her former employer — as one of the people involved in phasing out some positions related to diversity.
Questions have even arisen about Bowden-Lewis’ spending on renovations in the agency’s central office. Some in the division have interrogated her handling of the budget altogether — leaving dollars unspent and positions unfilled — in addition to her support for attorneys in the field.
Others have asserted that she observes everything through a racial lens and blasted her for not adequately providing resources to address plummeting morale, high caseloads and a so-called racial divide they say didn’t previously exist.
A question of focus
One of Bowden-Lewis’ critics has been Joseph Lopez, a public defender who has worked in the agency for nearly three decades and currently serves as director of complex litigation.
Lopez, who is Hispanic, said recently that he believes racial justice and diversity are “hugely important,” but feels Bowden-Lewis’ administration has focused less on “strong lawyering” and more on community outreach and obtaining racial diversity.
“I think we have evolved to the point where people are angry. I think there are certain things that she’s done where people are afraid to talk to her,” Lopez told the CT Mirror, adding that people are demoralized and hesitant to speak up to Bowden-Lewis because they “don’t want to be labeled as racist.” He declined to speak about any of his personal interactions with her.
Lopez also expressed dissatisfaction with what he interpreted as Bowden-Lewis’ administration allowing for racial equity training to satisfy a mandate for public defenders to take courses in legal education, a decision he doubts was green-lighted by the state. On a yearly basis, lawyers are obligated to take at least 12 hours of approved training seminars of their choice — formally known as Mandatory Continuing Legal Education.
“Establishing hiring practices, training agendas and making resource allocation decisions that focus more on diversity and racial inequality will put our public defenders at a significant disadvantage,” Lopez said.
But the agency’s training director, Andrew O’Shea, said he didn’t tell employees that racial equity training would satisfy MCLE requirements, because he doesn’t have the authority to do so. He merely said the training was “intended” to meet the law, according to an email reviewed by the CT Mirror. It’s the role of an attorney “to ensure his/her own compliance with the rule,” according to UConn’s Office of the General Counsel.
“It’s consistent with whenever anyone has emailed me about any training,” O’Shea said in an interview. “All I can tell you is what the intention behind this is. You’re an attorney, you’re professionally required to understand your MCLE requirements.”
O’Shea also indicated that the Connecticut Bar Association recently offered a session for MCLE credit, titled, “Equality v. Equity: How Reframing Your Diversity Focus May Help You Achieve Your Diversity Goals.”
Bowden-Lewis doesn’t see diversity, community outreach and courtroom representation as mutually exclusive. She said her goal is to strike a balance where public defenders can discourage young people from getting involved in the criminal legal system while vigorously advocating for clients who are already in it.
She also finds it “odd” that people are afraid to approach her, when she has kept an open-door policy, she said. Nor does she understand the fear of retaliation, when she says she hasn’t retaliated against anyone.
Regarding the ongoing conversations about race, she believes it’s interwoven in everything the agency does because of who public defenders primarily represent. But race isn’t talked about too frequently, she added, and the discussions about it pre-dated her tenure.
A 2018 lawsuit filed against the division alleged, for instance, that white employees were being given preferential treatment for promotions regardless of their qualifications. Baez, the lawsuit’s plaintiff, who works in the financial unit, said she stopped pursuing it because of the monetary costs as well as the detrimental effect on her mental health.
In response to claims about plummeting morale, Bowden-Lewis doesn’t think she’s been around long enough to make any drastic changes that would cause morale to deteriorate.
Attorney caseloads were already high prior to her arrival, she pointed out. Her administration successfully advocated for a pay increase for contract attorneys who handle criminal and child welfare cases. She said her budgetary decisions, which included renovating the main office to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, have been made with hopes of fostering a more welcoming workplace.
She said she doesn’t want the agency operating at a deficit, which is why she decided not to spend surplus dollars. And anytime she’s said no to attorneys requesting more resources, she says the decision was backed by the agency’s internal data system, which calculates caseloads and allows for her to compare resources across various field offices.
As for her relationship with the former commission members, all of whom either declined or did not respond to requests for comment, Bowden-Lewis said she was not made aware of why they resigned but always expected to have differences of opinion. Every recommendation she made to the group was fully vetted, she said, by her and others in the field.
But as she understands it, something would have had to go egregiously wrong for the commission to detour from her suggestions. If that was ever the case, she expected to have thorough discussions with the members to reach middle ground.
“It’s about who is the most qualified. It’s about who should be the person who actually gets the position, not about anything else. That’s how it should always go,” Bowden-Lewis said.
She decided to hire the employment lawyer, who sent the letter, for protection.
“All I’m going to say is that obviously there have been some situations that did not follow precedent and did not meet what has been the standard,” she said.
‘Cusp of change’
William Dyson, a former New Haven state representative, was the only member of the previous commission who did not step down. To resign, he needed convincing that the chief public defender had done something that was not good for the agency.
“That, I did not see. No one presented that to me,” he said.
Dyson called attention to some of the board members’ experience as judges and lawyers, which he listened to and acted upon when the group made decisions. He said he was “at a loss” when they resigned but understood why Bowden-Lewis felt like she needed to protect herself.
“This is a person who is on the very cusp of change, fighting an issue,” Dyson said, alluding to Bowden-Lewis’ goal to diversify and rebrand the agency. “Even though it may not have been on the table necessarily as the No. 1 priority, it was an issue that all of us were aware of, though we may never have talked about it.”
Dyson, who is Black, also said Bowden-Lewis was probably treated “a little different” than her predecessors because her vision represented a drastic change from what some members may have been comfortable with.
Others in the agency agreed. Baez said when Bowden-Lewis was appointed, racist microaggressions in the office skyrocketed to an “all-time high.”
The 17-year agency veteran, who is Hispanic, said she would hear colleagues say in a snarky tone, “You guys got what you wanted, you got a Black chief public defender.” On a different occasion, when another coworker finished reviewing an email from Bowden-Lewis, Baez said the person remarked, “She’s very articulate.”
Baez remembers the appointment of Christine Rapillo, Bowden-Lewis’ predecessor, as a “celebration” among some staff. With Bowden-Lewis, she said, people were not as jovial.
“It seems like they’re so upset, and that’s a very tame word for what I want to say, about her saying no and not being a yes man,” Baez said. “It’s just sad that they only want to paint a picture of her as being this iron fist.”
McGraw, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said the most visible difference he observes between Bowden-Lewis and Rapillo, who declined an interview, is not their leadership styles but rather the way people respond to them.
“When Chris was here and she was chief, people would come into my office and vent, stating that, ‘She doesn’t invite me into these meetings. She doesn’t listen to me or she ignores me or she treats me poorly,’” McGraw said. “Now that TaShun is the new chief, what I’ve seen is those same exact people … are now taking their complaints to the media or to the commission.”
After the commission resignations, Connecticut’s Office of the Attorney General facilitated a contract with an outside law firm, Shipman and Goodwin LLP, to investigate the complaints coming out of the division. The probe is ongoing, though officials expect it to conclude in the near future.
Meanwhile, top state officials appointed five new members. Many around the division are viewing their arrival as a fresh start. One of those people is Dyson, who said that while Bowden-Lewis is determined to improve the agency, she faces the difficult task of trying to make peace, a political aspect of her role that he says develops with time.
“It has to come, she has to do it. It’s part of what the job requires,” the former lawmaker said.
Richard Palmer, a retired state Supreme Court justice who was handpicked by Gov. Ned Lamont to chair the commission, said there’s no denying that turmoil exists. But he wants the body to hold an open line of communication with Bowden-Lewis. If there are disagreements, he hopes the group can work together to resolve them.
“The commission is extremely supportive of recruitment and doing everything that can be done to attract people of color to various positions. That’s not a question in anybody’s mind that I’m aware of,” Palmer said. “The commission will do its best to evaluate whatever vision and goal TaShun has and ultimately exercise our best judgment with regard to that goal.”
Despite the unrest, Bowden-Lewis said she’s proud of the division’s growth in the last year, which has included providing paid summer internships to three college students, creating partnerships with the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity and the Black Public Defender Association, and working with legislators to secure more funding for contract attorneys.
She soon hopes to establish a unit dedicated to providing practical assistance to people reentering their communities after utilizing public defender services, in addition to bolstering the agency’s external presence so that clients can receive pertinent information in real time.
Much of it will likely require buy-in from her 400-member supporting cast, many of whom say they are committed to the agency’s mission.
“We will continue to tackle important issues that impact our ability to best serve the public, specifically high caseloads and recruitment of attorneys from diverse backgrounds,” the union representing public defenders said in a written statement. “We will continue pressing these concerns with our leaders because they are the key to improving the Division for the betterment of the clients we serve.”
As for Bowden-Lewis, her door remains open.
“I do plan on being here for a very long time,” she said.