Alumna makes history as Connecticut’s first Black chief public defender

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 February 28, 2023

Quinnipiac law graduate TaShun Bowden-Lewis, Connecticut’s first Black chief public defender

TaShun Bowden-Lewis, JD ’97, figures she was about 7 years old when the epiphany came calling. While most kids her age didn’t know what a lawyer did, Bowden-Lewis had already chosen a career track. She wanted to be a public defender.

Suddenly, the girl with the curious mind and the full heart was ready to change access and outcomes, if not the world. After 25 years of doing just that, Bowden-Lewis was appointed Connecticut’s first Black chief public defender in 2022.

“First and foremost, this is an honor. It’s truly the pinnacle of my career,” Bowden-Lewis said recently from Waterbury Superior Court, where she served as the acting public defender, and later, public defender from 2016-22.

“But it’s extremely important for the people, the children and all those behind me to see that I'm Black and I'm a woman. Representation matters. I know it’s a hashtag these days, but it’s more than that. Representation absolutely matters. I want people — especially those who look like me — to see that if I can do it, you can do it, too.”

As much as this job is a promotion, it’s also a highly visible platform for Bowden-Lewis. She has always provided a rigorous defense for her clients. But her commitment to social justice runs just as deeply. Equity, inclusion, fairness, equality, accessibility — they all matter on her watch.

Especially at home.

Connecticut is one of only seven states in the country where Black individuals outnumber white individuals more than 9-to-1 in the prison population, according to “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Diversity in State Prisons,” a 2021 report published by The Sentencing Project.

Long before that data was analyzed, Connecticut made history as the first state in the nation to enact a statewide public defender system in 1917. However, it took more than a century for the first Black woman to run it.

Today, Bowden-Lewis oversees the state’s Division of Public Defender Services, an agency of more than 400 attorneys, investigators, social workers, secretaries and other staff who navigate more than 100,000 criminal, child protection, delinquency defense and family support cases each year.

It’s a collective effort aimed at collective excellence.

“Now, I’m able to assist with resources for my staff, whether it’s going to the Legislature to ask for more funding, or even, just listening,” she said. “I’ve been there. I know what’s going on in the field. My actual prism of knowledge is very broad because I’ve been that per-diem person all the way up to the top job, every step of the way.”

There is an unmistakable humility and urgency to Bowden-Lewis and her work, dating back to her childhood in Norwalk, Connecticut. Everywhere she looked, she saw another strong woman in her life.

“My mother and my grandmother were instrumental in my development. It was always about giving back to others and helping others,” she said, while acknowledging that service can be a steep climb sometimes. “Being a public defender is hard. You’re always on the front line, but it’s my passion to help others in this capacity.

“You do your best to protect and preserve the rights of your client and their families. There was never any other option for me. I’m not a contractor person. I’m not into patent law. I’m not into real estate. It was always defense.”

Earlier this month, Bowden-Lewis was named a Connecticut Bar Foundation James W. Cooper Fellow in recognition of her exemplary work. She was joined in the Class of 2023 by School of Law alumnae Leslie Jennings-Lax, JD ’04, and Suphi Philip, JD ’06, MHA ’06. School of Law adjunct professors John Cordani Jr. and Superior Court Judge Linda Allard also were named to the class.

The honor comes with a mandate for change and a mandate for clarity.

“The Fellows develop programs that enhance understanding of the legal profession, the legal system, and the role of law in society; explore ways to improve the administration of justice for the benefit of all; and promote the highest ideals of the legal profession,” according to a press release from the Connecticut Bar Foundation.

Role model, mentor and muse

Professor Marilyn J. Ford, the Neil H. Cogan Public Service Chair, met Bowden-Lewis on the first day of class at Quinnipiac Law in 1994. It didn’t take long for this first-year student from Georgetown to get noticed by the faculty. “TaShun came into law school on a mission. She was driven,” Ford said. “She made it very clear early on she was interested in working in the public defender’s office.”

As it turned out, Ford helped place Bowden-Lewis in an internship with the public defender’s office for the Fairfield Judicial District. There, she learned from former public defender William Holden, who is now a Superior Court judge.

“She impressed him and did an extraordinary job in that office,” Ford said. “She’s always been someone who is concerned about fairness, about equity and about doing things to help others improve their lives.”

As Bowden-Lewis has devoted herself to her career and others, her values and her commitment have followed suit. Those who know Bowden-Lewis describe her as “brilliant, always prepared, hardworking, tireless, a team builder” and more.

At this point, Ford gently interrupts the conversation.

“Don't forget time management, OK? Given the realities of the job — and everything that she’s responsible for in that office — she manages her time very well,” Ford said. “She’s always on time, without exception. If the meeting is scheduled to start at 3, it starts at 3. If it’s scheduled to end at 4, it ends at 4.”

Bowden-Lewis is keenly aware of her role and her visibility. She knows leadership “starts from the top and trickles down” to touch every member of her team. She makes it a priority to be in the courtroom when new attorneys have their first trials, whether it’s in Waterbury, New Britain or anywhere else in the state.

Make no mistake, she’s prepared for every situation with her extension ladder, broad shoulders and measured temperament.

Bowden-Lewis cites Ford’s business organizations class as one that helped prepare her for this moment. “She’s an amazing professor and an amazing person who continues to be an important person in my life,” Bowden-Lewis said. “She pours her heart into her work and her students, so she’s definitely someone who’s had a big impact on me. So many Quinnipiac professors did.”

Ford has followed her former student’s career closely over the years. She insists Bowden-Lewis was a role model, mentor and muse long before she took the top office in Connecticut’s Division of Public Defender Services.

“TaShun has been working with young men and young women for at least the last 15 years,” Ford said. “We’ve had law students who have been discouraged and potentially would have dropped out of school, but TaShun was there for them — particularly for our law students of color and particularly for our young women.”

But the hand Bowden-Lewis extends, the one that so often touches historically marginalized communities, reaches beyond classrooms and courtrooms. It reaches those who need help to become empowered.

“Whether it’s her community, her church or her sorority, TaShun has made a difference across the state of Connecticut, and I suspect, on a regional and national level, too,” Ford said. “She’s too modest to tell you that, but I will. I think all of us here realized very early on that she would be a wonderful example of what an attorney should be and could be.”

Curated gratitude

Assistant Public Defender Charles E. Green Jr., who is based in Waterbury Superior Court, has known Bowden-Lewis since 2007. During that time, he has witnessed her leadership, strength, grace and compassion up close.

“Those are the qualities that make her who she is, the things that were given to her by her family, her upbringing and the work she does on a daily basis,” Green said. “I’ve been fortunate to have her as a mentor and a colleague, but most importantly, as a friend.

“She’s an incredibly humble human being. She’s never cocky, but always confident. There’s a big difference,” Green added. “There’s a sense of humanity in everything she does. She doesn’t do it for the attention and the accolades. She does it because she believes in this work. And it’s hard work, believe me. You don’t get that pat on the back every day.”

On good days, the gratitude comes with a spontaneous embrace in court. Other times, it comes days or weeks later with a handwritten note tucked inside a pastel envelope.

Green keeps his notes and photos on a wall across from his desk. Bowden-Lewis has her own collection of curated gratitude. For public defenders everywhere, every letter, every thank-you note is more than a win. It’s a validation.

“What brings us to work every day is knowing that we make a difference,” Green said. “More importantly, it’s understanding that at the end of the day, the person sitting next to us could be somebody we know. It could be us. You never know what tomorrow brings. That’s what keeps me going, and I know that’s what keeps TaShun going.”

As Bowden-Lewis walked through the hallways of Waterbury Superior Court on this day, she was met with hugs, smiles and refrains of glee. The greetings were warm and welcoming, the kind reserved for dear friends and the very best people.

“Everyone is genuinely happy to see TaShun and genuinely happy to see her in this new role,” Green said. “But there’s another part to all this. This position is long overdue for her. She did everything you’re supposed to do and more to get to where she’s at right now.

“She kept getting overlooked, but she kept the faith and kept working hard. She never lost sight of what needed to be done. She absolutely deserves this job,” Green said. “So yes, I’m clapping for TaShun — and I’m clapping for other people until it’s my turn.”

Uncompromised support, uncommon resolve

Bowden-Lewis isn’t simply the face of the Division of Public Defender Services. She’s also its standard-bearer, the leader who inspires her team with uncompromised support and uncommon resolve.

“Every single day, I’m so impressed by how competent and how hungry we are,” she said. “Our commitment and professionalism never changes. We’re here to do the very best that we can to be zealous advocates for everyone.”

Bowden-Lewis understands the grind, but she also understands there is no refuge in red tape. It takes hope and humanity to represent those who are often the most invisible members of society.

“It’s not about pushing papers and closing cases. It’s about seeing the person you’re actually representing,” Bowden-Lewis said. “When you can help someone start over and get back on track, that’s very rewarding. I still have people who call me from time to time to let me know they’re OK.”

And yet, despite the best preparation and advocacy, outcomes often come with consequences.

“Sometimes, there’s going to be someone who gets a life sentence,” she explained. “Sometimes, there’s going to be a sexual assault registry situation. Sometimes, someone is going to lose their child. Those things happen, unfortunately.”

But through it all — the wins and the losses, the heartache and the joy — the one constant now is TaShun Bowden-Lewis.

As she leans slightly forward, Bowden-Lewis outlines her three-prong vision for the Division of Public Defender Services: a keen focus on diverse recruitment and retention, a renewed emphasis on community engagement, and unabashed gratitude for her people.

“The work that we do is very hard and incredibly stressful. I know because I’ve done it for many years,” Bowden-Lewis said. “I want everyone under my purview to know how much I appreciate them. I see them. None of this works if we’re not a team. And I can tell you without hesitation, I have the very best team.”

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