Steve Mulroy was raised on Star Trek.
Growing up, he most related to Spock: Calm and logical. Later, he wanted to be like Captain James Tiberius Kirk, headstrong and always taking action.
“I always cared about fairness,” Mulroy said in a June interview in his campaign office. “Fairness just seemed an important thing. I grew up on Star Trek. There were always those ideals of fighting for the little guy, making sure things were fair and living up to our ideals. I took a course at Cornell on free speech. That really inspired me. I don’t know. I just took right to it.”
Whether through the progressive ideals of Star Trek or through his involvement with civil liberties at Cornell, Mulroy, 57, gained a passion for bringing about change.
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Since his arrival in Memphis in 2000 to work as a law professor at the University of Memphis, he’s jumped into numerous causes: Fighting for everything from ranked choice voting to the preservation of the historic Zippin Pippin rollercoaster.
Now, he’s taken on a new cause, one larger than any he’s attempted before: Transforming the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.
And to do so, he’ll need to defeat incumbent Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, a Republican with strong support, but a troubled record, who’s held the office since 2011.
Mulroy advocates for change
When he launched his campaign in December to seek the Democratic nomination for Shelby County District Attorney General, Mulroy began with an attack on Weirich, referring to how in 2017 she received a private reprimand from The Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
Since then, Mulroy has consistently stressed how he would pursue different policies than Weirich, including creating a conviction review unit to review old cases that are questioned, enacting bail reform and no longer opposing DNA testing, as Weirich did in the case of Pervis Payne.
Mulroy has also said that, if elected, he would need to personally sign off on every transfer of a juvenile to adult court, setting himself apart from Weirich, who said Monday in a debate that her office could file transfer motions on even more juvenile cases than they do, and that if Mulroy were in office, “It will be open season for juvenile crime in Shelby County.”
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In December 2018, a federal monitor wrote, “The combination of prosecutorial gamesmanship and the prosecutor’s refusal to provide discovery (in contrast to all other Tennessee Counties), is a toxic combination for African-American youth” in her final report on Shelby County, something Mulroy has often referred to on the campaign trail.
Weirich has said Mulroy wants to release violent criminals, using a photo of Mulroy from a Starbucks unionization campaign coupled with video from a “defund the police” march in a recent advertisement.
Releasing violent criminals is not what his platform advocates, Mulroy has said. He wants bail to still be set high for people with a “high criminal history, multiple Class A, Class B felonies” or gang ties, he said. Class A and B can include things like rape, murder and carjacking.
For those who don’t fit those categories, the criminal justice system must “have a stronger presumption in favor of pre-trial release, absent specific evidence that that particular defendant is either a flight risk or a danger to the community,” Mulroy said.
Mulroy has numerous other changes he hopes to make in the district attorney’s office. On officer-involved shootings, he believes an independent prosecutor should always be requested. For other types of police misconduct, he believes the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) ought to be given more power — something he’d use the bully pulpit of the district attorney’s office to advocate for.
On immigration, he believes prosecutors ought to be more sensitive to which charges trigger deportation proceedings. Individuals deserve consequences for their conduct, he said, but not to be ripped away from their families.
“I’m running because there is a desperate need for reform in our criminal justice system, and the reform is designed to make the system fairer, to have less of a burden on innocent people and make it more fair racially, make it less discriminatory,” Mulroy said. “My hope is that by doing these things, we can restore public confidence, get the public to cooperate with law enforcement and reduce the violent crime that is out of control in our jurisdiction.”
Mulroy grew interested in ‘fundamental rights’
Mulroy has been on the law faculty at the University of Memphis since 2000, teaching constitutional law, criminal law, criminal procedure, civil rights and election law, according to the school’s website. He is a former civil rights lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department and a former federal prosecutor.
But he nearly took a different path: He went to Cornell to become an astrophysicist.
He quickly realized that “with great effort” he would only make a “mediocre physicist” and switched paths, soon becoming involved with the Civil Liberties Union at the school. Issues like due process became of great interest to him, soon becoming his “true passion,” Mulroy said.
“That’s why I went to law school, to do public service work,” Mulroy said.
When he participated in a Department of Justice honors program, they put him in a voting rights section, and he “fell in love with it.”
“The two most fundamental rights, most fundamental things we need in a democracy is the right to vote and the right to free speech, and I was interested in both,” Mulroy said.
He would go on to work for a voting rights organization in San Antonio, then become a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, doing cases all over the country involving voting rights, housing and fair lending discrimination.
When he decided he wanted to try criminal law and have more trial work, he moved over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia.
The most ‘make a difference’ argument
After about six years in Memphis working as a professor at the University of Memphis, Mulroy was recruited to run for the Shelby County Commission. He already had some notoriety for his voting rights activism — and for working to save the beloved Libertyland amusement park — and didn’t live far from a district held by a Republican but poised to go blue.
“When he won, it gave the Democrats a majority of the commission. So it swung control of the county,” said David Upton, a lobbyist who is a former Democratic Party officer and one of the people who recruited Mulroy to run for commission. “We were fortunate to have a smart, diligent hardworking person, and Mulroy stepped up to do it and he did a good job.”
Mulroy knocked on doors for five or six months in order to win the race, Upton said.
“He was particularly interested in voting rights issues and criminal justice issues and he had just gotten lots of people’s attention as being very issue-oriented and very much a progressive activist type,” Upton said. “He worked hard.”
Not only did Mulroy honor his Star Trek fandom by declaring April 9, 2015 “Star Trek Day” while on the commission, but he also took on more serious causes. He established LGBTQ protections for county employees, the county’s first ethics ordinance, its first animal welfare ordinance and more.
He also made the news for actions outside of his official county role, donating a kidney to a stranger — and setting off a string of donations ultimately resulting in 28 people receiving a transplant.
Holding the role of district attorney would be a far different task.
The highest prosecutor in Shelby County, the district attorney general oversees an office of 223 employees, including more than 100 prosecutors.
Many names were floated that Mulroy would have supported, he said, but ultimately out of the slate of those running on the Democratic ticket, he came to believe he was the person with the greatest experience and political savvy to win.
In May, he won 46% of the vote in the Democratic primary, compared to opponents Janika White’s 33% and Linda Harris’ 21%.
He’s very happy as a tenured law professor, Mulroy said in the interview in the campaign office. It’s a phrase he’s repeated multiple times on the campaign trail and when announcing his candidacy. He ends each lecture with a limerick summarizing the lesson.
Mulroy has published one book on election reform and has ideas for two others — books he likely won’t have time to write if he’s elected district attorney.
But what convinced him was the idea of how to make a difference, he said.
“You can make a difference by doing civil rights work or being a prosecutor,” Mulroy said. “You can make a difference by flipping a swing district. You can make a difference by saving Libertyland — whatever. This was probably the most ‘make a difference’ argument I’d ever heard, because the DA has such broad discretion.”
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.