Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee has announced her resignation for next year at a time when she has made history as a dissident.
She had authored so many dissenting opinions in 2017 that the Knoxville Bar Association published a story, “Justice Sharon G. Lee and the Power of Dissenting Opinions,” which made it clear that these opinions can have a powerful impact on the legal system.
The story was written by Emily H. Harvey, clerk at Frank G. Clement Jr. of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, and David L. Hudson Jr., director of academic affairs and legal writing, Nashville School of Law. They quoted former US Supreme Court Justices, including the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as saying that dissenting opinion can sharpen and improve the writing of a majority opinion.
Lee served 19 years on the Tennessee Judiciary and was first appointed to the Circuit Court of Appeals by Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. Bredesen also appointed her to the country’s Supreme Court. Since then, it has been held by voters at elections.
“I am saddened to hear of her resignation, as are many Democrats,” Knox County Democratic Chairman Matt Shears said Tuesday. “I’m proud of her service and her legacy to the state. She represents the best of our party and the judicial system. I look forward to Justice Lee becoming an active member of the party.”
Lee, who turns 69 on December 8, wrote to Gov. Bill Lee (the two are not related) that she is retiring on August 31, 2023. This sets in motion the process for a state Judiciary Commission to seek applicants for the position. probably in the next few weeks; hold hearings; and send the governor three names from which to choose Justice Lee’s successor. Then the legislature must approve the governor’s election. All of this is expected to be completed next spring.
Lee considered not seeking another term this year until Justice Constance “Connie” Clark was diagnosed with cancer and died in September 2021. “We didn’t need two judges to go at the same time. There should just be more continuity and a more orderly transition,” she said in an interview on Monday.
She said that if she had been in a hard-fought re-election campaign this year, as she, Clark and others were in 2014, she would not have run because it would have involved fundraising, even though she knew she would not be serving a full term.
The dissenting opinions in the 2017 story dealt with challenged majority opinions, providing insufficient constitutional protections from unreasonable searches and seizures, parents facing the termination of their rights, depriving them of effective legal assistance and barriers to access by Building inmates to the courts.
A paper Jennifer Foster wrote in 2020 to complete her J.D. degree at the Nashville School of Law said the issues of Lee’s disagreements involved basic fairness, the majority method of deciding cases, giving the parties their “day before Court” and the meaning of constitutional rights include such as jury trials. “By writing boldly and without apologies, she is not afraid to defend her position,” Foster said.
Justice Lee is the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice and the only member from East Tennessee. She was Chief Justice from 2014 to 2016 when she promoted access to justice and spearheaded some innovations including a review of the state’s system of representation for those in need. She and two other women once formed the majority on the state’s five-member Supreme Court.
In a statement, Chief Justice Roger A. Page said Lee has always been forward-thinking, innovative and open-minded. “She has never forgotten where she came from and who she serves. She is a judge of the people and has advocated transparency, ensuring that the court’s opinions and orders use such language [is] accessible to everyone, not just lawyers,” Page said.
Lee had a small-town practice in Madisonville for 26 years, including with her well-known uncle, the late JD Lee, and served as a Madisonville municipal judge and an attorney for Madisonville, Vonore and Monroe counties. Her parents, Charles and Judith Lee, were active in Monroe County Democratic politics and held public office there. She lost two county judges’ races before being appointed to the Court of Appeals and now resides in Knoxville.
About 10 years ago, Justice Lee gave lectures on her father’s service in World War II. He was waist gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 bomber when the plane was shot down on its sixth bombing raid. He was imprisoned at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, on the Baltic Sea coast, until his liberation on May 13, 1945. He then returned to Monroe County and rebuilt his life, but he rarely spoke about his experiences, his daughter said. She pieced together his experiences from the few discussions they’d had about her and the medals he’d won.
In retirement, the Webb School and University of Tennessee graduate said she plans to spend more time with her family, which includes two daughters from a marriage to Madisonville attorney Peter Alliman and three grandchildren.
“You can’t do a reduced workload on the pitch. You have to give it your all. I felt like it was a good time for me and the court to retire,” Judge Lee said.
∎ UPDATE ON TVA BOARD: The last of President Joe Biden’s nominees for the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors will stand up for consideration Tuesday, November 29 at 10 a.m. before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The committee will consider the nomination of Beth Prichard Geer of Brentwood, former Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff, as well as several other independent nominations.
Five other candidates for the nine-member TVA board left the committee on Sept. 29 and await full Senate confirmation. Geer’s nomination is held up by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. Ernst questioned Geer at an April 6 hearing about what she meant in a 2015 tweet when she tweeted “awful” after Ernst responded to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
This column reported two weeks ago that the Biden administration must have TVA board nominees approved by the end of the year or the nomination process will have to start over. At the end of the year, the previous TVA board will no longer have a quorum if no new members are accepted. The TVA board has since approved certain responsibilities that will go to CEO Jeff Lyash should that happen.
On Nov. 17, a coalition of national environmental groups sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging the leadership to fulfill a bipartisan agreement reached last year to confirm all six Biden candidates together.
The coalition, Clean Up TVA, includes the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, whose executive director, Stephen A. Smith, told this columnist that the TVA board is the last “remnant of oversight” for executives.
“It is critical that Biden candidates are quickly confirmed so they can bring the president’s policy perspective on decarbonization to TVA decision-making. We strongly object to the existing TVA board continuing to delegate critical policy decisions to the CEO, which would potentially tie the hands of the future board. We hope that the new board and CEO will reconsider these policy decisions on future additional fossil fuel generation,” Smith said.
Other members of the coalition include the Sunrise Movement, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program. In its statement, the coalition said the TVA Board “stands ready to make key decisions about TVA’s long-term energy path over the next two years, including investments in renewable energy development and energy efficiency programs, and an integrated resource plan.” With the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, TVA also has the opportunity to use expanded clean energy tax credits to deploy solar and battery storage and help customers take advantage of cost-saving energy efficiency technologies.”
TVA generates electricity for more than 10 million customers in Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
The other nominees acquitted by the committee are Michelle Moore, Richmond, Virginia; Robert Klein, Memphis; William Renick, Ashland, Miss.; Adam Wade White, Eddyville, Kentucky, and Joe Ritch, Huntsville, Ala.
Live video of Tuesday’s committee meeting will be available on the EPW website, Twitter and YouTube.
Georgiana Vines is a retired editor at News Sentinel. She can be reached at [email protected]