Tennessee Supreme Court docket Justice Sharon G. Lee retired in 2023 following serving on the state’s best court docket for 15 several years. In her wake, she leaves a celebrated legacy of honest decision-building and a wish to be certain justice for each citizen.
Childhood in the Courtroom
Developing up in Madisonville, Tennessee, Sharon G. Lee (UT Regulation, ’78) walked to the Monroe County Courthouse after college each and every day. Lee’s mother served there as clerk of the chancery court docket and her uncle, nationally-regarded plaintiffs’ lawyer J.D. Lee (UT Regulation, ’54), experienced a regulation business office across the street. “I watched a lot of trials and used time in my uncle’s office environment,” Lee recollects — but she did not visualize a career in regulation. “There were being not any women of all ages lawyers at that time. I never ever saw any person who seemed like me, so I didn’t see it in my long run.”
Nevertheless, early publicity to the courtroom sparked Lee’s fascination. Right after initially pursuing schooling in the professional medical industry, she turned to business, earning a diploma in accounting from the Haslam Faculty of Company in 1975. Though she relished her experiments and graduated with high honors, Lee didn’t assume a vocation in community accounting was for her. “Law faculty seemed the only alternative,” she suggests. Regardless of the ongoing shortage of woman legal professionals, Lee commenced studying legislation universities with her uncle’s encouragement. “He suggested me to go to UT College of Law simply because I’d get a fantastic training and make connections that would serve me for the relaxation of my occupation. And he was suitable.”
Broad Range of Working experience
Lee went to function for her uncle following graduation. A year afterwards, she was all set to develop her own apply. For the next 26 many years, she worked as a common practitioner in Madisonville, managing a large selection of operate from boundary line disputes to custody situations, wills, individual personal injury circumstances, partnership dissolutions, and even a money murder case. “I ran the gauntlet in the circumstances I handled and appreciated just about every little bit of that knowledge,” Lee claims. She loved receiving to know her purchasers and creating a favourable difference in their life. “That private link that you make with consumers in a smaller town is what stands out to me. Numerous folks cannot pay for to pay back, but in a modest town, you do pro bono perform with no hesitation.”
In the course of her tenure in Monroe County, Lee also served as county legal professional and town legal professional for two of the four metropolitan areas in the county, and as city judge for Madisonville. Those ordeals confident her she would take pleasure in staying a choose. When there was an opening on the Tennessee Court docket of Appeals, two judges approached Lee to propose she utilize. “I initially said no, but they planted the seed and encouraged me,” Lee suggests. Ultimately, choosing she had practically nothing to get rid of, Lee worked difficult to allow the selection commission know who she was and why she was skilled. She was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2004, the very first female to serve on the Jap Segment of the court docket in its almost eight-decade record.
Aim on the Folks
Lee’s new role as a choose prompted a change of speed in her operate existence. In non-public practice, she experienced a major scenario load and desired to operate speedily and effectively. “When I turned a Court docket of Appeals judge, I had to sluggish myself down, develop into far more thoughtful and deliberate — and understand I didn’t usually have to achieve an instantaneous choice.”
In 2008, Lee was appointed to fill a emptiness on the Tennessee Supreme Courtroom. Her time in basic practice gave her knowledge in several types of prison and civil instances, and she brought that knowing to the Supreme Courtroom. “Most importantly, I knew the result a court’s selection has on people today, people, and businesses,” she claims. “No make any difference what the case is, there is constantly a particular person on the other stop.”
With that knowledge, Lee sought to look at every single situation by way of the lens of attorney and consumer. “I consider to condition the ruling so that attorneys and judges can understand and utilize it — but also so the social gathering included can have an understanding of my reasoning, know they were being heard, and see that I did my finest to be good and just.”
Rodd Barckhoff, adjunct professor and interim director of the Heart for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at the College of Law, worked with Lee for nearly 15 yrs when he served as a staff members lawyer for the Tennessee Supreme Court. “I can attest to her famous do the job ethic, intelligence, and preparation,” Barckhoff says. “Her writing as a jurist is unmistakably her voice. Browse any of her greater part or dissenting thoughts and you will hear equal measures of frequent sense, eyesight, and knowledge — and previously mentioned all else, a problem for fairness.”
Essential Rulings and Dissents
Though Lee says it’s complicated to choose beloved cases from her time on the Tennessee Supreme Court docket, she is happy of her work crafting the greater part impression on the Point out of Tennessee v. Booker case in 2022, a 3-2 conclusion that included a younger guy convicted of murder when he was 16. “The statute imposed an automatic everyday living sentence without regard to age or other circumstances of the defendant,” says Lee. “I wrote the bulk view holding that an automatic lifetime sentence violates the 8th Modification prohibition on cruel and unconventional punishment. Our state’s statute was harsher than any other state’s.” Because of that conclusion, Tennessee now will allow for parole eligibility in significantly less than 35 several years for juvenile murder offenders.
Lee’s unanimous 2020 view in Effler et. al. v. Purdue Pharma et. al. authorized men and women wounded by illegal drug use to carry actions for damages towards drug corporations. “This was an essential decision in light of the opioid epidemic,” states Lee.
Lee feels strongly that if she disagrees with the court’s selection primarily based on the legislation, she is sure to compose a dissent. “I truly feel the require to point out my motives for disagreements so that my possess conscience is apparent, and other people can see that there are diverse viewpoints on the scenario,” she suggests. “When you are on the Supreme Court, you don’t go together just to get along.”
Management and Community Financial commitment
Throughout her expression as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court docket from 2014–2016, Lee proposed the Davidson County Enterprise Court Pilot Undertaking to boost the justice system’s effectiveness in handling complex company instances. The task saw extraordinary results, resolving lots of significant intricate enterprise circumstances in a rather short time. “This was an significant way for the Court to react to a will need,” Lee claims, “and a wonderful way to stimulate enterprises to locate in Tennessee and continue to be in this article.”
Outside the house her vocation in legislation, Lee has invested time in her relatives and local community, boosting two daughters and now paying time with her 3 grandchildren. She’s also served as a board member of the YWCA of Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the YWCA Foundation, the Monroe County Boys and Women Club, and the East Tennessee Historic Society, and contributed to the Higher education of Law by way of shows and council appointments. “Justice Lee has been an invaluable supporter and source for me all through my initially 12 months as dean of the Faculty of Law,” Dean Lonnie T. Brown, Jr. says. “She is a human being of terrific integrity, conviction, and braveness. I am so proud and grateful that we can declare her as one particular of our possess, and that our students have this kind of a excellent role product to encourage them.”
Passion and Goal
From commence to complete, Lee is motivated by a firm belief in justice. “I really believe every person must be dealt with fairly, with dignity and respect,” she claims. “No one particular is above or beneath the legislation.”
A several years in the past, Lee was checking out at a regional grocery shop when the cashier abruptly thanked her. “You represented me and helped me get custody of my granddaughter,” the woman informed Lee. “Now she is graduating from superior faculty and starting university.”
Lee did not don’t forget the scenario, but in that moment, she recognized how a regimen portion of her working day numerous yrs ago had influenced this lady and her family in a significant way. “My daughter was property that weekend researching for the bar,” Lee recalls. “I instructed her the tale and said, ‘This is why we are attorneys.’ Working with your abilities, competencies, and training to assist folks who locate themselves in tough situations — that is what it’s all about.”