Boys’ club never stood a chance against Lee

State Supreme Court justice took knocks early, proved mettle

Friday, November 20, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 47
By Nancy Henderson

In the fall of 1978, not long after she established a solo law firm in her hometown of Madisonville, Sharon Lee was appointed to assist well-known criminal defense attorney Bob Ritchie in representing the custodian of a church camp charged with sexually abusing teenage boys.

“I honestly didn’t even know what a preliminary hearing was,” admits Lee, 66, now a Tennessee Supreme Court justice for the Eastern Section. “I decided to do what Bob did, and whatever he did, I tried to copy. He had boxes of files that he’d been working on for weeks, and I had a legal pad with nothing written down.”

When Ritchie stepped forward and asked for a copy of the witness statements, the state’s attorney readily handed over the papers. But when Lee made the same request, the prosecutor replied, “I won’t give you a statement, but I’ll let you read it out loud.”

All eyes were on the embarrassed young lawyer as she followed the prosecutor’s instructions and repeated the raw language of the 13-year-old, slang and all. “I remember looking out there and seeing the courtroom was packed,” Lee recalls. “My parents were there. A teacher from my high school was there. It just felt like everybody I knew was in the audience, and I was reading this horrible statement with terrible language. I tried to act brave, but I was trembling inside.

“But I got through it. And then I thought, ‘Man, that was a dirty trick.’”

It wouldn’t be the last time a male cohort would try to demean her. But Lee brushed off the would-be deterrents, forging ahead with a successful private practice, the distinction as the first woman appointed to the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and her current post on the state Supreme Court, all while staying true to who she is and where she came from.

Retired Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Charles Susano met Lee years ago when she appeared before him as a practicing attorney. The two later sat on the appeals bench together. “She is very bright, and someone who knows where she came from, which was a rural county,” he says. “She couldn’t put on airs if her life depended on it. Once I got to know Sharon, I said, ‘Boy, this is somebody good.’ And I was not disappointed at all.’”

A studious kid who excelled in her Monroe County school, Lee was captivated by the original “Divorce Court” on TV, although she notes, “Looking back, it was pretty bad because it had some age-inappropriate things for kids.”

The Hon. Sharon Lee, Tennessee Supreme Court justice for the Eastern Section, in her Downtown Knoxville courtroom.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

Exposure to real-life law reeled her in even more. She often visited her uncle’s law firm, which was located next to her father’s office. (Her dad was a road builder and later a real estate broker.) Her mom was clerk and master of the Monroe County Chancery Court. “So the courthouse was my after-school day care,” Lee says. “I sat in on some jury trials in the big courtrooms on the second floor. I was always very fascinated by trials, but I never really saw myself as doing that.”

Instead, she envisioned herself as a doctor, a goal that surfaced in high school after she won first place in the senior division at a regional science fair for her ecology project focused on the aging of an East Tennessee farm pond. For eight months, she boated onto the lake in front of her house, tossing a jug into the water, collecting samples at different depths and analyzing them in the lab she set up at school.

But after signing up for pre-med classes at Vanderbilt University and volunteering at the medical center “for about 30 minutes,” she decided that medicine wasn’t for her. Neither was accounting, especially after a friend commented, “I just don’t see you doing that.”

“That just kind of clicked with me, like ‘Oh, I’m going to be sitting at a desk all day working with numbers, not interacting with people,’” says Lee, who went on to finish her business degree at the University of Tennessee. “I couldn’t do that.”

Enrolling at the UT College of Law, she remembers, “was pretty well my last chance to find what I wanted. And as it turned out, it was a great choice.

“I liked the reading and the research and essentially working a puzzle, fitting all the facts together, organizing them and applying the law, and then figuring out what the right answers should be,” she says. “I also liked that being a lawyer, you could try to right some wrongs, that you could help people by resolving problems in their lives that seemed very big but to a lawyer are very manageable.”

The public speaking aspect, however, made her uncomfortable. But over the years, she grew accustomed to it and “eventually I didn’t have that problem.”

President of the Moot Court Board, Lee felt welcomed in law school. “But once I got out and back home in Monroe County, I never saw any other women lawyers,” she says, noting that some of her male counterparts gave her a tough time.

One day, an older attorney stopped her and asked, “Why are you a lawyer?”

State Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee in her Knoxville office with assistant Shelley Ward

-- Photo By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

“Same reason you are,” she replied.

“I didn’t say it mean, and I didn’t hold it against him because I truly think he was puzzled,” she explains.

One judge seemed to relish assigning her extremely difficult cases. “I think he was hoping I would quit,” she says. “There were lawyers who I think tried to take advantage of me. But it never got to me. I knew what I wanted to do and I just pretty well ignored all that. I knew going in that I had to be better than the male attorneys to be considered equal.”

She chose not to join an established firm but to maintain control of her business and hang her own shingle in Madisonville, where she stayed from the time she earned her juris doctorate in 1978 until her first judicial appointment in 2004.

In her solo practice, Lee handled everything from car and workplace accidents to child support, wills and criminal cases. As a newbie, she had no business handling some of the latter, she says.

Lee hadn’t been practicing very long when she was appointed a death penalty case in which a man had allegedly committed “a very heinous offense and the facts were very bad. I remember the jail personnel were all scared of him, yet they would lock me in the cell with him and walk away and I’d have to beat on the door to let them know we’d quit talking.”

The more she met with the client, she says, the more she learned about his upbringing. He’d been abused and affected by poverty and “just had no breaks in life. He had committed a terrible crime, but he was still human and just trying to do the best with what he had. He was a little bit hard to like, but once you got to know him, he was a good person. He was somebody you cared about.”

Lee secured a life sentence for her client, saving him from execution. He is still serving time.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee talks about some of the mementos in her Knocville office.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

In the mid-1990s, after observing firsthand the prevalence of physical and psychological abuse in her divorce cases, she completed advanced family domestic violence training as a Supreme Court-approved mediator. “Nobody comes in and says, ‘I’m being abused.’ [The training] teaches you to look for the clues, and then once you discover there is abuse, what to do about it.”

Over the years, she also shouldered a number of pro bono cases for those who couldn’t afford to pay, a practice echoed by her judicial role now. “One of the Supreme Court’s initiatives is access to justice and making sure everybody has meaningful access to our system, regardless of their circumstances,” she says.

Meticulous preparation may be her legal forte´, but it is her compassion that some remember most. “When somebody came in, I did not see a dollar sign,” she says. “I just saw a person who needed help.”

In addition to her private practice, at various times Lee served as attorney for Monroe County, Vonore City and Madisonville. She also presided as judge in the Madisonville courts. She enjoyed listening to both sides—“When I would try a case and was waiting on the court to rule, I would often think, ‘OK, if I was a judge, what would I rule here?’” she says. But partly because there were no female judges in her hometown, she never pictured herself in that role.

So her appointment to the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2004 came as a surprise, she says, especially given the higher profiles of the 13 other applicants, including a former president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a slew of big-firm lawyers.

To her interviewers, who pointed out that she might become the state’s first female appeals judge, she asserted, “I want this because I’m the most qualified, not because I’m a woman.”

As the competition narrowed, she began asking her peers to contact Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office and put in a good word. Later, when he confirmed her appointment, he praised her statewide support, along with her broad experience litigating a wide variety of cases and representing people from all walks of life, as the tipping points in his decision.

In 2006, voters elected Lee to the post for two more years.

Justice Sharon Lee shows off photos of her granddaughters hanging in her Knoxville office.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

Susano and Lee became good friends on the court. “You knew that she had done the work that was necessary, and that’s very important to lawyers,” he says. “They don’t like judges that fly by the seat of their pants.”

In 2008, Lee was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court, although she notes that the previous Court of Appeals role was “a bigger moment for me and represented a bigger change in my life.”

Still, she says, with her current job comes more responsibility to get it right. “We’re the final say, so there’s greater pressure on me to make sure that my decisions are correct. The death penalty cases are perhaps the hardest cases that I deal with because it involves somebody’s life. I feel an enormous pressure in those cases and an enormous sadness when there is an execution, not only for the defendant who has died at the hands of the state, but also the victim and how that tragedy impacted their lives and their families and their circle of friends.”

Lee was last retained to the Supreme Court by Tennessee voters in 2014; her term runs until August 2022.

In mid-March, most nonessential, in-person hearings were suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee and her colleagues are still conducting them via Zoom, an electronic alternative with unexpected advantages.

“There was one case where we had over 800 views on YouTube of the hearing,” she says. “We would never have had over 800 people listening to a case had it been heard in court. So it’s made the court much more transparent, much more visible and invited more public participation.”

In Lee’s office hangs a framed montage of photos of which she is especially proud, for more reasons than one. In them, her 5-year-old granddaughters are sporting Ruth Bader Ginsburg lookalike robes, white collars and glasses, their hair pulled back in buns. Not really expecting a reply, a year ago Lee sent the composite to RBG and asked for her autograph just as the U.S. Supreme Court was adjourning for the summer.

The signed collection came back within the week. “I thought she was just a tremendous justice,” says Lee, whose tweeted photo and comment after RBG’s death in September drew a great deal of positive feedback.

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Lee has volunteered for countless organizations, from her children’s PTA to the American Bar Association and has won numerous honors from the YWCA of Knoxville, National Association of Women Judges and others. A gardener with a penchant for history, she gives presentations to school, civic and legal groups about her dad, a prisoner of war in Germany, and the common bond he shared with other captured soldiers. She has also been heavily involved in causes benefiting women, children, the homeless and the underprivileged. “I’m just trying to help those who have a hard time in life,” she says.

As a judge, she says, “I care about the people and the process. The opinions are not just based on abstract legal theories. At the end of the day, they involve real people.

“It’s unusual for a small-town lawyer to serve on the highest court [in the state],” she adds. “And I’m glad I’m the one who gets to do that.”