Partner Reflection: Kevin Sharp

By Judge Kevin Sharp, Co-Vice Chairman | May 2024

A lifetime appointment. That’s what Article III of the United States Constitution provides for those fortunate enough to be selected for the federal judiciary. A seat on the federal bench is often thought to be the pinnacle of a career in the law, and I was honored in 2010 to be nominated by President Barack Obama. Ultimately, I was unanimously confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate. My commission was signed by the President on May 3, 2011, and I was sworn in by Chief Judge Todd Campbell the next day.

Rewind nearly a decade earlier. That’s when I first met David Sanford. David and Grant Morris had come to Nashville as part of their representation of a class of African American employees who worked at a manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. Among other things, these employees had been subjected to racist and demeaning conduct — including the scrawling of “KKK” on bathroom stalls and the frequent use of the “N-word” around and directed at them. White employees who joined their protests of this conduct were also targeted and retaliated against. I had the good fortune of being asked to serve as local counsel. My role was to provide support to the Sanford Heisler team on issues of local practice and procedure. What I didn’t know at the time was that David Sanford would become a close friend and respected law partner.

I enjoyed my time on the bench. The intellectual challenge and the knowledge that I was having a real impact on the administration of justice in this country were extremely rewarding. However, my experience with the criminal side of the job had been limited and I wasn’t prepared for the flood of concerns I had over the criminal justice system. It seemed to me that “the system” was grinding up generations of young, mostly minority, men. Time after time I found myself presiding over individuals raised in poverty, lacking economic opportunity, and struggling with mental health and addiction issues. By the time I encountered the criminal defendant, the damage was done. As a judge I was expected to “fix” a problem that should have been addressed years, if not decades, ago. But the most frustrating part was when mandatory minimum sentences were required. Mandatory minimums occur when specific sentences are compulsory, and the judge has no discretion in fashioning an appropriate term of imprisonment based on the specific facts and circumstance of the individual, as was normally the case. I occasionally was assigned a criminal matter where that occurred. One such case involved a young man named Chris Young.

Chris was 23 years old when he was convicted of a non-violent drug offense. Because of two previous convictions, both non-violent, this was his third strike, and it triggered a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. As if having to sentence a young person to life in federal prison was not difficult enough, it became crushing the more I learned about Chris. At his sentencing hearing he spoke eloquently for nearly an hour about his life, his immersion in a world of drugs and poverty, his family struggles, his only brother’s suicide, and, heartbreakingly, about all the things he could do if he was not going to die in prison. It was impossible to listen to this young man of compassion, intelligence, and, above all, promise and not be moved to question the system that did not just allow this to happen – but required it. The criminal justice system was taking potential assets and making them liabilities. And it is not just the defendant who is sentenced in a situation like this. Families, friends, entire communities suffer. We are all diminished by this. Nevertheless, I did what I had to and sentenced Chris Young to life in prison. Despite his plea, unless something drastic happened, Chris was indeed going to die in prison.

It was then that I knew I could either step down and speak out in opposition to this function of the criminal justice system or stay on the bench lamenting my role in this misguided scheme. The decision-making process wasn’t easy, and I would not have left the bench if the place I landed didn’t provide the right opportunity to use my skills to further civil rights or to use my voice for criminal justice reform. Talking through my dilemma with David and Jeremy Heisler, Co-Founder of this firm, the choice became clear. Throughout my two decades in the law, I had never seen a more passionate, committed, intelligent group of attorneys. And above all, they were nice people who believed in their cause. I couldn’t imagine stepping down and joining a better law firm. And frankly, if Sanford Heisler wasn’t there I wouldn’t have stepped down.

As a side note, something drastic did happen to Chris Young. After I joined the firm, I was contacted by his attorney, Brittany Barnett, to assist with a clemency petition. Working with Brittany and Kim Kardashian, who heard about Chris’s situation and wanted to help, we were able to present his case to the White House and meet in the Oval Office with the president. Ultimately, papers granting Chris freedom were signed. He was released from federal prison and began working on behalf of others with life sentences for non-violent offenses. He has been accepted to several major universities and will begin working toward his degree in the fall.

But it’s not just the Chris Young victory that keeps me motivated. Every day I’m reminded of why I joined this firm. I continue to see the fire in each person’s eyes for the pursuit of justice. I see the commitment to our clients and the commitment to each other. There’s a reason why this firm has the reputation it does. There’s a reason why after 20 years the firm still fights for what’s right and just. I’m thrilled to be a part of this team. I’m thrilled to be able to play a role in fighting to make our society a better place. Whether battling the entities in the opioid supply chain who put profits ahead of lives, the trustees who breach their fiduciary duty and risk the life savings of participants in their retirement plans, or workplace discrimination that robs employees of their dignity and equal opportunities, what we do seeks to bring value and justice to our society.

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