Monday, August 31, 2015

Remembering and honoring Joe Lee, the debtors' bankruptcy judge

Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, gave a tribute to the late Joe Lee, a federal bankruptcy judge, at a memorial service in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 29. Lee was also profiled in the The Huffington Post by financial and best selling author Don McNay, a Kentucky resident.

Smith said of Lee, "He was a reticent man of few words, but his was a powerful mind, his thoughts finding expression in memorable research, writing and editing articles, and crafting legal opinions, yes, and lobbying Congress, in a career that earned him a national reputation as a pioneer for bankruptcy and creditor reform."

Judge Joe Lee
Lee wrote the Bankruptcy Practice Manual "to instruct young lawyers how to write a bankruptcy filing because so many who came to his court didn't know," Smith said. Lee's wife Carol said the royalties from the book, also known as "Lee on Bankruptcy," and the annual editions that followed, "helped educate Carole to become a CPA and each of his four daughters—Caroline, Annabelle, Caitlin and Janet, in different fields."

Smith said, "this soft-spoken, gentle jurist from the mountains, son of a Bell County coal miner and an Alabama-born mother had likely earned more from his legal textbook than nearly all the novelists I knew who turned to teaching creative writing to make a living."

"Whether it was an impressive college record or political connections through a father who had only a sixth-grade education but was a respected union leader, I learned Joe had fast climbed a ladder, clerking for judges and as a committee aide in Congress and then, at 35, becoming perhaps the youngest bankruptcy judge in America," Smith said. "Judge Joe taught an early class at UK Law School before holding court in town or headed for the hills to preside over the largest bankruptcy docket in the U.S., covering 24,000 square miles in—where else?—Appalachian Kentucky."

"At the same time, while my new friend was editing the Academy of Bankruptcy Journal, with a pencil and a yellow legal pad, I found out that much of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 was his doing and that he was strongly opposed to proposed changes at century's end that he felt were inspired by credit card banks and donations to congressmen," Smith said. "This was a campaign he would lose, but I will report that when the editor of one of our largest papers retired, one to whom I had written many letters urging support of Joe's position, the editor confessed to me, “'not listening to you about Judge Lee was the worst mistake I ever made on the editorial page.'”

"Joe was scrupulously fair, but he labored to restore dignity to individual debtors," Smith said. "That was his credo. With Senator Warren he disputed the description of debtors as 'deadbeats.' Not so, they said, asserting data that, in most cases the causes the courts are dealing with are loss of a job, serious illness, or divorce. Joe Lee grew up in our hardscrabble hills with the mindset of folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He believed 'This Land is Your Land . . . made for you and me.' On one of his birthdays, the Lee children arranged for him and Carole to spend a day with Pete Seeger in the New York countryside on the Hudson River."

"It was a meeting of instant friends, with the same 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."

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