U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Joe Lee, who died last week at 89, presided over some of the largest, most complex bankruptcies to ever land in the Eastern District of Kentucky, and was recognized nationally as an expert in bankruptcy law.
But what guided Judge Lee's work and advocacy were the thousands of bankruptcies he presided over that gained no notoriety, those of people or small businesses captured in painful, overburdening debt.
Judge Lee, one of his former clerks once said, saw bankruptcy court as a court of equity, where creditor and debtor stood on a level playing field.
He believed that people who sank into debt — usually because of illness, an accident, a lost job or predatory lending — deserved the breathing room to get their lives back together.
A principle author of the 1978 bankruptcy code. Judge Lee also wrote a textbook on bankruptcy law that remains in use at law schools around the nation.
He was a staunch opponent of the efforts — unfortunately and disastrously successful — in 2005 to rewrite the 1978 code. In an opinion piece he co-authored for The New York Times, he wrote that the law's goal was to "lower the risk of extending credit to shaky borrowers at high interest rates to enhance profits."
Judge Lee exemplified judicial demeanor, treating those who appeared before him with respect and patience.
Don McNay, a Lexington businessman, wrote in an appreciation of Judge Lee that appeared on the Huffington Post this week, that for Judge Lee, "The people in front of him were not case files; they were people who had monumental financial issues to deal with. He gave them his best work."