United States Bankruptcy Judge Joe Lee, a champion for consumer bankruptcy reform, died Thursday in Sarasota, Fla., after suffering a stroke last week. He was 89.
"He was encyclopedic in his understanding of the (bankruptcy) code and everything about it," said Lexington lawyer Joe Scott, who was a bankruptcy judge from 1999 to 2002. "...He's somebody who is better known in the rest of the country than he is here."
Lee served as a bankruptcy judge from 1961 until his retirement in 1997, but continued to preside over cases as a "recall judge" on an annual basis until recently, said Donna Famularo, his judicial assistant for 30 years.
"I don't know if he was the longest-serving bankruptcy judge in the country, but he was one of the two or three longest-serving judges," Scott said.
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Lee played a pivotal role in drafting and pushing for the enactment of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, which continues to serve as the uniform federal law that governs all bankruptcy cases today.
He was the author of more than 40 publications, including 1981's Bankruptcy Practice Manual, which is still used in law schools today.
He presided over several notable cases, including the 1990 bankruptcy of Southeast Coal Co. and the 1991 bankruptcy of Calumet Farm in Lexington.
Lee had a reputation as a "debtors' judge," someone willing to hold creditors at arm's length while debtors tried to get their affairs in order.
"He always had the best interest of debtors at heart, but he always followed the law," Famularo said. "If the law was in the debtor's favor, he made sure the debtor was taken care of."
In a 1990 interview with the Herald-Leader, Lee said he opposed any effort to make it harder to file for bankruptcy.
"I don't think you should be persuaded that you should change the bankruptcy laws to accommodate poor lending practices and encourage poor lending practices," he said. "I think that the fact that bankruptcy exists serves as a salutary brake on the lending practices of these institutions, which otherwise would be worse than they are."
When he retired in 1997, Lee told the newspaper he didn't regret that, after a long career on the bench, he remained relatively unknown in the world outside of bankruptcy.
"I've never wanted to gain attention by dealing with the misery of others," he said. "That doesn't seem right."
Born on June 24, 1925, in Bell County, Lee was the son of the late Perry Rodolphus Lee and Mattie Martin Lee.
He was a 1943 graduate of Bell County High School, where he was a quarterback for the football team. That same year he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps, serving in the 8th Air Force in England during World War II.
Upon his return from service, he enrolled at the University of Kentucky on the GI Bill, receiving a degree in journalism in 1952. He received his law degree from UK in 1955.
After graduation from law school, he served as law clerk to Judge James B. Milliken, Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and to U.S. District Judge Hiram Church Ford.
Lee also served as counsel to the Congressional Labor Subcommittee for the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed judge.
Lee was an adjunct professor at the UK College of Law from 1972 to 1992, and was inducted into the college's Hall of Fame in 1998. A biennial seminar on continuing education for bankruptcy lawyers was named for him in 1997.
Survivors include his wife, Carole Pace Lee; four daughters and a twin sister, Jean Risner of Fairfield Glade, Tenn.
A memorial service will be held at a later date at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington.
Those wishing to contribute to the Judge Joe Lee Scholarship Fund may make donations by mailing checks to UK College of Law, c/o Tressa Neal, 237 Law Building, Lexington, KY 40506.