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Sharon Lee still has vivid memories of coming to Roane County to try a case as a young lawyer many years ago.
“Polk Cooley was on the other side,” she recalled. “Anybody want to guess how that case turned out for me?
“He beat me like a drum.”
Despite her loss to Rockwood’s legendary attorney, things still worked out well for Lee.
The Madisonville native was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2008, and she remains a justice on the state’s high court today.
Lee spoke to the Rockwood Civitan last month about her journey and experiences.
“Thanks for inviting me to come and speak,” she said.
Lee has known Civitan member and Roane County Commissioner Copper Bacon for years.
“I started showing walking horses when I was probably 12 or 13 and showed for 10 or 12 years, so I got to know the Bacons,” she said. “They had good horses. I had kind of an average horse, but we went all over Tennessee showing walking horses.”
Lee, who described herself as a true small-town lawyer, graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1975.
She was planning to pursue a career in accounting, but decided to do something different when it was time to graduate.
A phobia of sick people meant medical school wasn’t an option.
“I had to figure out something I could do, so I went to law school, and I loved it,” she said. “I knew I’d made the right decision.”
After law school, Lee opened up an office in Madisonville where she practiced for 26 years. Her cases ran the gamut from petty theft to capital murder.
“I handled everything that walked in the door,” she said.
Lee has also been involved with city governments during her career, serving as the attorney for Vonore and Madisonville.
She also served as a city judge in Madisonville and as the Monroe County attorney.
Lee was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2004, getting selected from a group that included trial judges and lawyers from Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Four years later a vacancy opened on the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Lee applied and was selected for that position, as well.
When Lee was appointed to the appeals court and the Supreme Court, she got a call from then-Gov. Phil Bredesen each time.
She shared what that was like with the Civitan Club.
“My secretary came in and said the governor is on the phone,” Lee recalled. “I picked it up and he said, ‘This is Gov. Bredesen. I’d like to appoint you to the Supreme Court.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Gov. Bredesen. I accept.’ There was this long pause, and he said, ‘Oh, you do?’”
Lee said a lot of people told her Bredesen wouldn’t appoint her to the Supreme Court because it would mean the five-member court would have a majority of women.
“But he did, anyway,” she said.
Lee said giving the court a women majority wasn’t the significant thing about her appointment.
“It really is unusual for a small-town lawyer to end up on the state Supreme Court,” she said, “but I think it’s important that we have someone on the court who has been a small town lawyer, who has handled real cases and real problems for real people. I think you just have a unique perspective on life.”
Lee also said she doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward Cooley for the loss she took many years ago.
“I still think he’s the greatest lawyer ever,” she said. “I always enjoy talking to him and seeing him.”