Judge Joe Lee was one of the longest serving bankruptcy judges in the nation. Lee graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1955. After graduation, he clerked for Judge James Milliken, Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and for District Judge Hiram Church Ford in the Eastern District of Kentucky. Lee then served as counsel to the Congressional Labor Subcommittee for the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed as a referee in bankruptcy for the District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky on September 1, 1961. Throughout his career, he was active in legislative reform and played a pivotal role in the enactment of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.
Lee’s personal papers were donated to the National Bankruptcy Archives by his wife Carole Lee in 2016. They have now been processed and a finding aid to the collection is online. The collection documents Judge Lee’s active involvement with bankruptcy conferences and his dedication to improving bankruptcy law. Half of the boxes in the collection are related to Lee’s legislative work. They consist of annotated bill drafts, correspondence with members of congress, and minutes from the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ) legislative committee.
Judge Lee was president of the NCBJ from 1973 to 1974. During this time, the Commission on the Bankruptcy Laws of the United States released a report, and eventually introduced a bill, that recommended changes to almost every aspect of the bankruptcy system. The NCBJ drafted an alternative bill for bankruptcy reform that stemmed from their experiences as bankruptcy judges. This bill became known as the “Judges’ Bill” and was co-authored by Joe Lee and Murry Drabkin. Lee’s collection at Biddle contains folders full of his original drafts, scribbled edits, and careful revisions. Also included are several years’ worth of Lee’s testimonies before congressional committees and correspondence with NCBJ members as they worked to integrate the two bills. The Bankruptcy Reform Act was finally passed in 1978, establishing a functional, independent bankruptcy court.
Judge Lee remained active in legislative reform for the rest of his career. In the early 1980s, he testified before congress to advocate for Article III status for bankruptcy judges and in 1985 he worked on his own proposal for a bill that would restructure judicial administration, a copy of which is included in his collection. His collection also contains correspondence with congress and position papers up to 2001.
In addition to his legislative work, Judge Lee was dedicated to enhancing bankruptcy education and research. Lee authored over 40 publications, including the 1981 Bankruptcy Practice Manual. His collection contains extensive notes on bankruptcy history as well as articles, op-eds, and speeches. Also included are materials from seminars hosted by the University of Kentucky. In 1973, Judge Lee chaired the University’s first bankruptcy seminar, which started the University of Kentucky Continuing Legal Education Program. In 1997, the seminar was renamed the “Judge Joe Lee Biennial Bankruptcy Institute.” Lee also received the Excellence in Education Award given by the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges for exceptional contributions in bankruptcy law education.
Judge Lee retired in the fall of 1997 but continued to serve on recall until his death in 2015, making him one of the longest serving bankruptcy judges in U.S. history.
The Judge Joe Lee papers are now processed and available for research at the Biddle Archives and Special Collections Department. To learn more about Joe Lee’s work and what the collection contains, access the finding aid here.