Liberty and Justice For All – Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Lee Leads with Honor

Written By Emily Walls

Walking into the Tennessee Supreme Court in Knoxville, you can’t help but be in awe of the white stately columns that greet you at the entrance. They are symbolic of the admiration and respect we owe those who are elected and appointed to preside over the citizens of our great state. One of these influential leaders is Madisonville native, Sharon Gail Lee, who serves as the current Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Justice Lee grew up in Madisonville, where she watched her mother, Judy B. Lee, serve as Clerk and Master in Monroe County Chancery and Probate courts. She would often walk from school to the courthouse and sit in the back to listen to the proceedings. Her father, Charles J. Lee, also served in the county court. Even though both of her parents served in the courts, Justice Lee didn’t grow up dreaming she wanted to be a lawyer. It wasn’t until she attended the University of Tennessee where she majored in Accounting that she knew she wanted to pursue the legal field.

Lee attended the University of Tennessee for law school, and she loved it. While she was attending school, she worked for her uncle J.D. Lee, a nationally known attorney that had an office in her hometown of Madisonville. He gave her the opportunity to work while she was going through law school, taking on research projects and learning the practice as she was getting her education. This not only helped her bring in a little extra money, but it also helped prepare her for her career.

After Justice Lee graduated, she continued to work for her uncle a little over a year and then opened her own practice in her hometown. She loved the idea of being her own boss, and she wanted to stay in Madisonville where she felt she could really work one-on-one with people. She says, “Having a small town practice was very rewarding.  I loved working with people, and it was so gratifying to see the results of my work. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

She practiced law in Madisonville from 1978 to 2004 where over the span of years she served as a county attorney for Monroe County, Madisonville city judge, and a city attorney for Vonore and Madisonville. She then served on the Court of Appeals from 2004 to 2008. While Justice Lee enjoyed her job as an attorney, having the ability to look at both sides of a case, as well as ensure the Tennessee courts were fair and impartial, was appealing. She also liked the idea of being able to make the final decision.

In October 2008, former Governor Phil Bredesen appointed Lee to the Tennessee Supreme Court to serve as a Justice. In August 2014, Justice Sharon Lee was elected as the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court to serve an 8-year term.

A Day in the Life of a Chief Supreme Court Justice

Enormous respect and honor accompany the position of a state Supreme Court Justice, even more so, the Chief Supreme Court Justice, but what exactly does this role entail? According to Justice Lee, the primary role is to “uphold the constitution and make the best decisions under the law.” As Chief Justice, she sits in the middle of the courtroom. She is the one who serves as the spokesperson for the courts. She greets everyone, directs the proceedings, takes control of the questioning, introduces and calls the first case, and thanks the lawyers.

While that is her role in the courtroom, her job is different every day. Her responsibilities vary from getting ready for court and reading briefs, to hearing cases, preparing for conferences, as well as attending a variety of other events. She spends a great deal of time speaking to schools, non-profit organizations, and charities all across the state.  She recently swore in Governor Bill Haslam at his inauguration, which was a special moment as just months before he swore her in as Chief Supreme Court Justice.

As Chief Justice, she has an added layer of administrative responsibility. Justice Lee states that she wants to create “an aggressive path for doing things better in the courts.” One of her current priorities is making the courts become more efficient by creating electronic filing. This allows attorneys the ability to process their cases in the most efficient way possible.  She also wants to explore ways to make Tennessee friendlier to businesses by creating a business court in Tennessee to handle large business disputes, so that these cases are processed more efficiently. Justice Lee states that overall she hopes to make the court “more accessible, transparent, and efficient as possible for the citizens of Tennessee.”   

Paving the Way through Inspiration

Justice Lee spoke of her proudest moments, and there were two that came to the forefront. In 2004, she was elected to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. “Going from a lawyer to a judge was very rewarding to me.” She also states winning the retention election in August of last year after campaigning across the state was a moment she will never forget.

When asked about whether she ever pictured herself as the Chief Supreme Court Justice of Tennessee, she replied, “I always dreamed big, but I never pictured myself as the Chief Supreme Court Justice. Sometimes you just have to see things to actually believe them. I think it is very important to have women in power. It is also important to be that role model to young women, and for them to see other women in that position.” Justice Lee has certainly carved a path for other young women who may desire the same career.  She states, “As a woman I never used my gender as a crutch. I knew I had to work harder, and when I do well, it makes other women more easily accepted. Once you reach the top, you can pull others up with you through mentoring and encouraging those who have the same passion.”

Justice Lee takes a great deal of pride when young girls tell her, “I want to be a judge one day.” She has many parents that talk about the inspiration she has been to their daughters. She makes it a point to speak at schools, youth groups, and the American Legion Boys State as well as the American Legion Auxiliary Girls State. It is important for her to be that role model for other children and young adults.

Chief Supreme Court Justice Sharon Gail Lee is an inspiration to us all. She is proof that when you work hard, serve others, and lead with confidence that you can achieve the heights beyond your greatest dreams. As she steps into the courtroom day in and day out as an honorable and respectable judge, she makes it her goal to ensure all Tennessee citizens receive liberty and justice for all under the protection of our enduring constitution.

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