Tennessee’s First African-American Female Public Defender: Ardena Garth — by Deborah Levine

Ardena Garth Hicks was the first African American female public defender in Tennessee’s Hamilton County. When the State of Tennessee created the office of public defenders 18 years ago, it was an appointed position by the Governor. Ardena was the only applicant with both defense and prosecutorial experience. Of the 27 initially appointed public defenders, only two were black females.

When the office became an elected one in order to assure local accountability, she ran for office and won. Tennessee’s first elected black female public defender was re-elected several times. When asked how she came to her position in a southern state that still has modest African American political representation, Ardena talked about her family and her education. A native Chattanoogan, she went to high school in Ooltewah when it was little more than a mud pasture. Her father had been the librarian at the black high school for Hamilton County and was assigned to Ooltewah when the county and city schools were combined and integrated. Ardena went with him and was the first black valedictorian in Ooltewah.

Even as a law student at the University of Kansas, Ardena kept in touch with her Tennessee roots. She worked for a criminal defense attorney during summer breaks who helped open doors for her when she returned to Tennessee after getting her law degree. Ardena was proactive in her career by volunteering to serve on state advisory committees. She credits much of her success to her early choices of mentors and willingness to serve on state advisory committees even as a college sophomore. The people she met and got to know as a young woman were invaluable in her eventual appointment by the TN Governor. She served more than 18 years as a public defender for the 11th Judicial District.

Ardena is audacious in her beliefs and passionate about justice. She believes that if people are going to lose their life or liberty, everyone should be treated equally. She includes those who can’t afford a lawyer and where there are instances of mental illness. Ardena is a strong advocate for more mental health facilities. Now these people are sent to jail, punished with little or no help beyond monitoring medications. Long term problems simply fester.

Ardena believes that things have to change with are prison system which is only making gang problems worse. It used to be that gang leaders did not go to jail and if members were jailed, the gang disbanded. Now they run the gangs from jail, learn criminal behaviors and form criminal contacts. They get little re-entry skills and leave jail much more dangerous. She advocates a focus on public education and a way to deal with smart kids who have few choices and don’t want to go to college. She is concerned that if they don’t get it right the first time and end up in prison, young criminals will have few second chances.

Ardena has always been a model for others, inspiring them to think outside the box as she did. She advises young people, “Absorb and read everything you can; newspapers, magazines comics even if you’re not passionate about the topics. Be Aware! Write! Don’t be afraid of the blank page. Be self motivated about filling up the pages. Find out about yourself. Be open for whatever opportunity because you don’t know where it will lead and I’m a perfect example.”

When Ardena gives advice, she keeps in mind that young people will face a challenging future on a global scale. She urges them to learn a language and to travel. She hopes that some will consider making a difference by running for office as she did.

Currently, Ardena is a member of the Chattanooga Lean In – Women Groundbreakers and shares her words of wisdom with other women at monthly meetings. Her advice to and about groundbreaking women is quoted in 2 articles syndicated in the American Diversity Report, The Chattanooga News Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.

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