By Chandra Harris-McCray
“Election Day was second to Christmas. I loved going to the polls and passing out campaign pamphlets.”On his deathbed, Charles Lee waved to get the attention of his nurse.
“This is my daughter and she is on the supreme court,” he said.
With a sheepish smile, Justice Sharon Lee let go of his hand to introduce herself to the nurse. Despite his pain, the elder Lee beamed with pride for his daughter—a small town lawyer from Madisonville who in 2004 became the first woman to serve on the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals. In 2008, she was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, creating the first majority female court with Chief Justice Cornelia Clark and Justice Janice Holder.
“My dad never doubted I could do it,” Lee (Knoxville ’75, ’78) recalls, though in 1990, she ran for and lost a sessions court judgeship. In 1998, she lost again, that time a chancellor’s position. “I didn’t think I could be a judge, but he already knew I would be.”
Charles Lee was a Monroe County commissioner, while his wife, Judith, served as the Monroe County clerk and master and later filled her husband’s county commission seat.
“I grew up in the Monroe County courthouse,” Lee says. “I was the kid who watched Divorce Court instead of cartoons. Election Day was second to Christmas. I loved going to the polls and passing out campaign pamphlets.”
The ripple effect of the judicial process didn’t immediately shape Lee’s college aspirations, however. She participated in the Southern Appalachian Science Fair on the UT Knoxville campus while still a high-school student at the Webb School of Knoxville and decided she might be a doctor.
“I thought I wanted to be a pre-med major. I had visions of smiling children and soft background music,” says Lee of her hospital volunteer experience during her freshman year at Vanderbilt University. “There were no smiling children, it smelled like a hospital, and they didn’t want any magazines. That lasted all of thirty minutes. I hung up my smock, and they never saw me again.”
She came to UT Knoxville and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with high honors and a doctor of jurisprudence degree from the College of Law, where she graduated in the top 15 percent of her class.
Still a Small Town Lawyer
Following law school, she returned home—where she first fell in love with the law—to practice with her uncle. She soon started her own practice and was a solo practitioner for twenty-six years. She gave back to her community by serving as the county attorney for Monroe County, as city judge of Madisonville, as city attorney for Vonore and Madisonville, and as a family mediator before her appointment to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2004. She even found time to teach trial advocacy as an adjunct faculty member in the UT College of Law.
“People say ‘Justice Lee,’ and I still have to look around twice to see who they’re talking to.”Although she is on the bench of Tennessee’s highest court, Lee still lives in Madisonville and sees herself as the “small town lawyer” who is a partner in American democracy.
“I didn’t work in a tall building; I didn’t have a long fancy letterhead; and I did have average clients, who were part of the fabric of my community—they were my neighbors,” Lee says.
“Independent adoptions, personal injury cases, divorces, custody battles—I’ve seen and been part of it all. You really become part of people’s challenges.
“By the grace of God, I have had many advantages in my life, starting with my parents. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve never had to pay the full price for them. Many people aren’t so fortunate, and they simply are trying to survive from day to day.”
Lee recalls being in a fruit market when an elderly woman approached her and said, “You helped me get custody of my granddaughter. She’s starting college. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciated you helping me.”
“You never forget,” she says, “and that makes me a better judge, because ultimately it’s always about the people and making the right decision.
“People say ‘Justice Lee,’ and I still have to look around twice to see who they’re talking to. It’s an amazing job, but it hasn’t changed who I am.”
Lee says her greatest success has been as mother to her daughters, Sarah Alliman, a Knoxville interior designer, and Laura Alliman, a UT law student.
“I was often late and distracted when I finally made it to their recitals or picked them up from day care, but I wouldn’t trade those times for anything in the world. The days were long, but the years were short.
“As adults, my children told me that they didn’t remember me working because I was always there for them. That was the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me, and I cherish it still. Supreme court justice definitely takes a backseat to motherhood.
“Every rung of the ladder I have climbed is a victory, not for me, but for small town lawyers across this state and for my dad.”