Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee announces her resignation

  • Judge Sharon Lee was a progressive holdout on an increasingly conservative bench.
  • The Tennessee Supreme Court Justice confirmed Tuesday that she plans to retire next year.
  • Lee will have served 19 years on the bench by the time of her retirement.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee said she was “full of gratitude” as she plans to step down from the bench next year.

Lee confirmed to The Tennessean on Tuesday that she plans to retire at the end of August after 14 years on the state’s highest court. Prior to her appointment to that bench in 2008, she was the first woman selected to serve on the eastern section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

“This is a decision I’ve thought about for a while, but I know it’s the right decision for me,” Lee told The Tennessean when reached by phone Tuesday afternoon. “It was the highest honor of my professional life to have served. It was more than I could have ever dreamed of.”

Madisonville native Lee said she’s looking forward to not knowing what’s next and won’t be making plans for at least six months after retiring to East Tennessee.

“I want to see what it’s like,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll have any trouble.”

Lee, a former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, has long valued transparency in the judiciary and advocates for access to justice and worthy representation across the state. She began her career in Madisonville, where she practiced and often volunteered for more than 20 years, she said.

She previously served as a prosecutor for Monroe County, the city of Madisonville and the city of Vonore. She was first appointed to the Judiciary as a Madisonville City Judge in 2002.

When the Supreme Court launched its Access to Justice initiative in 2008, Lee said she knew it was a good idea — but didn’t even know how far-reaching and effective it would become, she said.

Tennessee has become a national leader in providing access to justice, she said, by encouraging volunteer work and responding nimbly to unexpected situations. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the High Court and the Courts Administration Office developed guidelines and found means to support live-stream hearings and other proceedings quickly and efficiently.

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“Attorneys across the state have taken up the banner of this work. I think we’re doing more than any other state to provide meaningful access to justice,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud.”

Lee was a progressive holdout on an increasingly conservative bench. She was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“I’ve always been very aware of the immediate impact court decisions have had on people’s lives and businesses and how they behave,” she said. “I’ve tried never to lose sight of how we deal with people’s problems and to keep that in mind when I write my decisions so that lay people, not just the bank and the bar, can pick them up and understand them . “

She planned to officially announce her resignation to Gov. Bill Lee by mail Monday, but the package had yet to be delivered and may have been lost in the mail, she said. She planned to submit it via email instead of the written notice.

Next, a judicial selection committee accepts applications from interested parties and conducts interviews before sending a short list of proposals to Gov. Bill Lee. His election must be confirmed by the state legislature before it is final.

“Justice Lee has always been forward-thinking, innovative and open-minded,” Chief Justice Roger A. Page said in a press release.

“She has never forgotten where she came from and who she serves. She is a people’s judge and has championed transparency, ensuring that the court’s opinions and orders use language that is accessible to everyone, not just lawyers. She has served her state well and the court wishes her well in her retirement.”

Justice Lee graduated from the Webb School of Knoxville, attended Vanderbilt University and received an honors degree in business administration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She received her law degree from the College of Law at the University of Tennessee.

“I enjoyed this job,” she said. “I had a good time and had so many wonderful, incredible opportunities.”

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