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Joe Lee was born on June 24, 1925, in Pineville, Kentucky. He graduated from Bell County High School in 1943 and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps where he served in the 8th Air Force in England during World War II. After returning from service, he received his undergraduate degree in journalism and his law degree (class of 1955) from the University of Kentucky. He went on to clerk 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. Following these clerkships, Lee served as counsel to the Congressional Labor Subcommittee for the U.S. House of Representatives. The District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky appointed Lee as the district's sole referee in bankruptcy on September 1, 1961.
Judge Lee served as president of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (NCBJ) from 1973 to 1974 and as secretary of the NCBJ from 1979 to 1990. During his presidency, Lee co-authored the "Judges' Bill" which represented the NCBJ's position on bankruptcy reform and was an alternative to the bill drafted by the Commission on Bankruptcy Laws of the United States. These bills became the foundation for the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, which established a functional, independent bankruptcy court.
Judge Lee often testified before congress on bankruptcy law reform. In the early 1980s, Lee advocated for Article III status for bankruptcy judges and continued to argue for this when congress instead passed the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984.
He was also active in bankruptcy organizations. He was a member of the National Bankruptcy Conference where he chaired the committee on individual debtors from 1982 to 1998. He was a Fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy in 1991. He also served as Editor-in-chief of The American Bankruptcy Law Journal from 1982 to 1990, and he authored many publications himself, including the 1981 Bankruptcy Practice Manual.
Judge Lee served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law from 1972 to 1992. He was the Program Planning Chair in 1973 for the seminar on bankruptcy which was credited with starting the University of Kentucky's Continuing Legal Education program. In 1997, the seminar was renamed the "Judge Joe Lee Biennial Bankruptcy Institute." He was inducted into the College of Law Hall of Fame in June 1998.
Other honors recieved by Judge Lee include the Herbert M. Bierce Distinguished Judicial Service Award by the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges; the American College of Bankruptcy's Distinguished Service Award; the Lawrence P. King Award for Excellence in the Field of Bankruptcy; and the Excellence in Education Award given by the Endowment for Education of 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 document Lee's involvement in bankruptcy organizations, his legislative activities, and his writings on bankruptcy law.
Series I: Bankruptcy Conferences and Committees, 1962-1998, contains correspondence, reports, and minutes from bankruptcy committees and associations that Joe Lee participated in. This includes minutes from American Bar Association committees as well as correspondence regarding legislation from the National Bankruptcy Conference. Also included is correspondence and minutes from the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges (formerly the National Conference of Referees in Bankruptcy). A substantial amount of correspondence relates to bankruptcy legislation, primarily the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978. For related material, see Series II.
Series II: Bankruptcy Legislation, 1968-2001, contains bill drafts and critiques, correspondence with members of congress, correspondence between judges regarding legislative activities, and testimonies before congressional committees. The drafts of bills include annotations made by Joe Lee. A significant amount of the material relates to the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978. Also included is correspondence related to retirement bills, the Bankruptcy Amendment and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984, and the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994. Correspondence on legislation from the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges can be found in Series I.
Series III: Writings, Research, and Seminars, 1961-2012, contains articles, speeches, collected resources on the history of bankruptcy law, and material from seminars. The articles and speeches are all written by Joe Lee unless otherwise specified. Included are articles for academic journals, op-eds, and position papers for conferences. The seminar material includes programs, correspondence, workshop outlines, and presentation notes.
The collection is arranged into the following series: Series I. Bankruptcy Conferences and Committees, 1962-1998; Series II. Bankruptcy Legislation, 1968-2001; Series III. Writings, Research, and Seminars, 1961-2012.
Received from Carole Pace Lee, 2016.
Processed by Elizabeth Wittrig, October 2022.
- University of Pennsylvania: Biddle Law Library
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- Elizabeth Wittrig
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