Expert bankruptcy judge aimed to restore dignity to those in debt

Judge Lee
Judge Lee

While Kentuckians were still arguing about heroes to be remembered in the state Capitol, lawyers, state and federal judges joined others at a memorial service last weekend to acclaim one of their own as a national leader in the law.

The late Joe Lee, a federal bankruptcy judge who died at 89 in May, was praised as a pioneer in reforming bankruptcy law and raising it to a higher status in jurisprudence.

Few Kentuckians, unless they were in his court, had a clue about Lee's distinguished career as one of the country's longest-serving judges, a tenure in which he wrote a standard textbook, The Bankruptcy Practice Manual, and taught early-morning classes at the University of Kentucky law school before setting out on a 24,000-mile circuit in Appalachian Kentucky to deal with the heaviest court docket of its kind in the nation.

Judge Lee, my close friend for 30 years, never seemed to regret being relatively unknown. Upon his retirement as an active judge, he told a reporter, "I've never wanted to gain attention by dealing with the misery of others. That doesn't seem right."

What also didn't seem right to this gentle, soft-spoken jurist from the mountains, son of a Bell Country coal miner and an Alabama-born mother, was the scorn so often directed at folks who have gone broke and can't pay their bills.

So he labored to restore dignity to individual debtors.

In a profile about him in the Huffington Post by financial author Don McNay, he was labeled "Elizabeth Warren before there was an Elizabeth Warren."

Another newspaper called him "the debtors' judge," but he was scrupulously fair. He disputed the description of debtors as "deadbeats," asserting data that most cases the courts deal with are loss of a job, serious illness and divorce.

In his "retirement," covered with honors from his colleagues, I don't think Judge Lee missed a beat. He was recalled to serve each year afterward until his death May 21 in Sarasota, Fla., where we wintered together with our wives.

Of nearly the same age, we were curious dinner companions. Whereas my children said I talked too much, they marveled at how reticent was the judge.

"When he does talk, what does he talk about?" my lawyer daughter asked.

"Bankruptcy," I replied.

"UK basketball," said her mother. "He is teaching me the game, he loves the Cats."

At the memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist church, Judge Lee's last law clerk, Asher Steinberg, recalled when, slightly bored with their lunch conversations, he asked the judge, "Why do we always talk about bankruptcy?"

"It's because that's what we do," the judge declared.

And "do it" he did in memorable ways.

After Air Force service in World War II and earning degrees at UK, he fast climbed the career ladder. Whether it was an impressive college record or political connections through a father who was a respected union leader, Joe Lee clerked for two judges, worked as an assistant to congressional committees and at 35 became the youngest bankruptcy judge in America.

His proudest accomplishment was drafting most of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.

As the first chief bankruptcy judge of the Eastern District of Kentucky, he remembered jokingly that for many years he was "a chief with no Indians." In time, it required three judges to take his place.

He grew up in our hardscrabble hills with the mind-set of folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He believed that "This Land is Your Land, Made for You and Me."

On one of his birthdays, the Lee children arranged for him and his wife, Carole, to spend a day with Seeger in the New York countryside on the Hudson River. It was a meeting of instant friends with similar convictions:

It's the hammer of justice

It's the bell of freedom

It's a song about love between my

Brothers and my sisters

All over this land.

Joe Lee — short name, big man.

Journalist Al Smith, founding host of KET's Comment on Kentucky, is a former federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.