A Passion for Justice: Sharon G. Lee

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon G. Lee retired in 2023 after serving on the state’s highest court for 15 years. In her wake, she leaves a celebrated legacy of fair decision-making and a desire to ensure justice for every citizen.

Childhood in the Courtroom

Growing up in Madisonville, Tennessee, Sharon G. Lee (UT Law, ’78) walked to the Monroe County Courthouse after school every day. Lee’s mother served there as clerk of the chancery court and her uncle, nationally-known plaintiffs’ lawyer J.D. Lee (UT Law, ’54), had a law office across the street. “I watched a lot of trials and spent time in my uncle’s office,” Lee recalls — but she did not envision a career in law. “There were not any women lawyers at that time. I never saw anyone who looked like me, so I didn’t see it in my future.”

Still, early exposure to the courtroom sparked Lee’s interest. After initially pursuing education in the medical field, she turned to business, earning a degree in accounting from the Haslam College of Business in 1975. While she enjoyed her studies and graduated with high honors, Lee didn’t think a career in public accounting was for her. “Law school seemed the only option,” she says. Despite the continued scarcity of female lawyers, Lee began researching law schools with her uncle’s encouragement. “He advised me to go to UT College of Law because I’d get a great education and make connections that would serve me for the rest of my career. And he was right.”

Broad Range of Experience

Lee went to work for her uncle after graduation. A year later, she was ready to build her own practice. For the next 26 years, she worked as a general practitioner in Madisonville, handling a wide variety of work from boundary line disputes to custody cases, wills, personal injury cases, partnership dissolutions, and even a capital murder case. “I ran the gauntlet in the cases I handled and enjoyed every bit of that experience,” Lee says. She loved getting to know her clients and making a positive difference in their lives. “That personal connection that you make with clients in a small town is what stands out to me. Many people can’t afford to pay, but in a small town, you do pro bono work without hesitation.”

During her tenure in Monroe County, Lee also served as county attorney and city attorney for two of the four cities in the county, and as city judge for Madisonville. Those experiences convinced her she would enjoy being a judge. When there was an opening on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, two judges approached Lee to suggest she apply. “I initially said no, but they planted the seed and encouraged me,” Lee says. Finally, deciding she had nothing to lose, Lee worked hard to let the selection commission know who she was and why she was qualified. She was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2004, the first woman to serve on the Eastern Section of the court in its nearly eight-decade history.

Focus on the People

Lee’s new role as a judge prompted a change of pace in her work life. In private practice, she had a heavy case load and needed to work quickly and efficiently. “When I became a Court of Appeals judge, I had to slow myself down, become more thoughtful and deliberate — and realize I didn’t always have to reach an instant decision.”

In 2008, Lee was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Her time in general practice gave her experience in many types of criminal and civil cases, and she brought that understanding to the Supreme Court. “Most importantly, I knew the effect a court’s decision has on individuals, families, and businesses,” she says. “No matter what the case is, there is always a person on the other end.”

With that understanding, Lee sought to view every case through the lens of lawyer and client. “I try to state the ruling so that lawyers and judges can understand and apply it — but also so the party involved can understand my reasoning, know they were heard, and see that I did my best to be fair and just.”

Rodd Barckhoff, adjunct professor and interim director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution at the College of Law, worked with Lee for almost 15 years when he served as a staff attorney for the Tennessee Supreme Court. “I can attest to her legendary work ethic, intelligence, and preparation,” Barckhoff says. “Her writing as a jurist is unmistakably her voice. Read any of her majority or dissenting opinions and you’ll hear equal measures of common sense, vision, and wisdom — and above all else, a concern for fairness.”

Important Rulings and Dissents

While Lee says it’s difficult to pick favorite cases from her time on the Tennessee Supreme Court, she is proud of her work writing the majority opinion on the State of Tennessee v. Booker case in 2022, a 3-2 decision that involved a young man convicted of murder when he was 16. “The statute imposed an automatic life sentence without regard to age or other circumstances of the defendant,” says Lee. “I wrote the majority opinion holding that an automatic life sentence violates the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Our state’s statute was harsher than any other state’s.” Because of that decision, Tennessee now allows for parole eligibility in less than 35 years for juvenile homicide offenders.

Lee’s unanimous 2020 opinion in Effler et. al. v. Purdue Pharma et. al. allowed people injured by illegal drug use to bring actions for damages against drug companies. “This was an important decision in light of the opioid epidemic,” says Lee.

Lee feels strongly that if she disagrees with the court’s decision based on the law, she is bound to write a dissent. “I feel the need to state my reasons for disagreements so that my own conscience is clear, and others can see that there are different viewpoints on the case,” she says. “When you are on the Supreme Court, you don’t go along just to get along.”

Leadership and Community Investment

During her term as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court from 2014–2016, Lee proposed the Davidson County Business Court Pilot Project to increase the justice system’s efficiency in handling complex business cases. The project saw remarkable success, resolving many important complex business cases in a relatively short time. “This was an important way for the Court to respond to a need,” Lee says, “and a great way to encourage businesses to locate in Tennessee and stay here.”

Outside her career in law, Lee has invested time in her family and community, raising two daughters and now spending time with her three 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 Girls Club, and the East Tennessee Historical Society, and contributed to the College of Law through presentations and council appointments. “Justice Lee has been an invaluable supporter and resource for me during my first year as dean of the College of Law,” Dean Lonnie T. Brown, Jr. says. “She is a person of great integrity, conviction, and courage. I am so proud and thankful that we can claim her as one of our own, and that our students have such a wonderful role model to inspire them.”

Passion and Purpose

From start to finish, Lee is motivated by a firm belief in justice. “I really believe everyone should be treated fairly, with dignity and respect,” she says. “No one is above or beneath the law.”

A few years ago, Lee was checking out at a local grocery store when the cashier suddenly thanked her. “You represented me and helped me get custody of my granddaughter,” the woman told Lee. “Now she is graduating from high school and starting college.”

Lee didn’t remember the case, but in that moment, she realized how a routine part of her day many years ago had affected this woman and her family in a significant way. “My daughter was home that weekend studying for the bar,” Lee recalls. “I told her the story and said, ‘This is why we are lawyers.’ Using your talents, skills, and education to help people who find themselves in difficult circumstances — that’s what it’s all about.”