No longer bound by ethics rules that keep judges silent, Sharp in an exclusive interview Saturday with The Tennessean denounced mandatory minimum sentences.
Kevin H. Sharp served as a federal judge in Nashville for 6 years. He was nominated by Barack Obama.
He'll work in private practice, handling employment and civil rights cases.
As a lawyer, he can be an advocate and said he hopes to level the playing field for minorities.
In an exclusive interview, he revealed he hopes to advocate for one man in particular: Chris Young.
Kevin H. Sharp sent Chris Young to prison for life and he thought it was wrong.
"Each defendant is supposed to be treated as an individual," Sharp said at the sentencing hearing in 2014. "I don't think that's happening here."
But there are duties that come with a black robe and gavel, chief among them following the laws of the United States no matter your personal opinion. And as a federal judge, Sharp had to impose mandatory minimum terms. That meant Young, a repeat drug offender, would never go home to Clarksville.
Young, now 28, is at a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
Sharp, now 54, is starting a new job and still thinking of Young.
The former chief U.S. District judge in Middle Tennessee resigned his post Friday, ending a lifetime appointment after six years. On Monday, he'll begin work at Sanford Heisler, expanding the respected civil rights and employment law firm into Music City while also expanding its title: Sanford Heisler Sharp.
In an exclusive interview on Saturday, Sharp talked about his tenure on the bench and his decision to leave it. No longer bound by ethics rules that keep judges silent, he denounced mandatory minimum sentences and previewed the topics he'll attack at the civil rights firm.
Those coalesce with Young. Talking about the case brought tears to Sharp's eyes and emotion choked his speech.
"If there was any way I could have not given him life in prison I would have done it," he said. "What they did was wrong, they deserved some time in prison, but not life."
Read a transcript of the sentencing at the end of this story.
'What we do kind of defines who we are'
Some of Sharp's motivation to move jobs was rooted in his path to becoming a lawyer more than 20 years ago. The Memphis native held odd jobs after high school: as an airport baggage handler, at a car wash — and even carrying a baseball bat around a gas station making sure self-service customers paid.
"I’d go hey, you pay for that? I thought, this is not really a career."
He enlisted in U.S. Navy. He was stationed in Hawaii, Alaska, the Philippines, Japan and Thailand. Despite the cultural differences, there was a common thread.
“I realized that, what we do kind of defines who we are," he said. "People meet me and they go, 'Nice to meet you Kevin, what do you do?'
"All this stuff gets layered on there. They make stereotypical decisions about who you are and what you’re like."
Whether those assumptions are right or wrong, Sharp said he grew to believe that a person's opportunity to work needed to be protected, which attracted him to employment law.
"African Americans, women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities don’t have the same opportunities," he said. “That to me is something that’s important, making sure the playing field gets leveled.”
Money$ Makes the World go around $
Sharp went to Vanderbilt Law School and then into private practice. President Barack Obama nominated him for the Nashville judgeship six years ago.
Work on the bench was intellectually challenging, and fun, he said. But Sharp saw that cases presenting significant issues came along unpredictably, and he couldn't choose the issues. One example: The legal challenge to a private probation company in Rutherford County, in which several probationers said they were being punished because they couldn't pay. In one hearing, Rutherford County General Sessions Judge Ben McFarlin Jr. testified.
"Money makes the world go 'round," McFarlin testified.
"I thought, Oh my God, no," Sharp recalled his reaction in court that day. "Money is not what makes the justice system go round.
"That’s not just morally wrong, it’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional.”
But in other high-profile cases his hands were tied by the law, and rulings countered what Sharp personally believed. He named specifically a case brought by a family against Nashville schools alleging discrimination in the district's rezoning plan. In 2012, Sharp ruled that although the effect of the district policy was segregation, the plaintiff did not prove the intent was discrimination.
"The proof wasn’t there and the law wasn’t on their side," he said. "If I was director of schools, I’d go, scrap this."
"As a lawyer I can be more proactive," he said. "I can say things I want to say. I can take cases I want to take. I can advocate for positions that I want to advocate for — as opposed to waiting as a judge, do I get that case or not?"
A sticking point during Sharp's time on the bench were criminal cases, colloquially known as "drugs and guns" cases, that required mandatory minimum sentences.
"The drugs-and-guns cases, you say it like that and it sounds like they’re all dangerous," he said. "Most of them are not. They’re just kids who lack any opportunities and any supervision, lack education and have ended up doing what appears to be at the time the path of least resistance to make a living."
'Maybe somebody can fix this'
Young's was a drugs-and-guns case. He was charged in December 2010, one of 32 people — some of them gang members — who federal prosecutors said were involved in drug trafficking in Clarksville. Court documents say federal agents believed Young was buying crack cocaine from a leader of the ring at a gas station. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine and other counts.
Young had two prior drug-dealing convictions, and his new charges triggered a provision of federal law requiring a mandatory life term if found guilty. Young and two others went to trial in August 2013 and were found guilty. About a year later, Sharp sentenced Young to life in prison.
At the hearing, Young described his upbringing: His mother was a drug addict, he said, and at times their house had no lights nor water. When he was old enough to get a job, he worked at a funeral home, but he felt a growing divide between himself and others in his neighborhood who dealt drugs, pulling him that way.
Hallie McFadden, a lawyer who defended Young, said each time she saw Sharp after the sentencing he asked about Young.
"I'm heartsick to see him go," she said of Sharp, "especially with the prospect of someone far less caring taking the seat."
Jim Thomas, a Nashville lawyer who later represented Young during his appeals and has had other cases in Sharp's courtroom, said Sharp was a "very capable and fair minded judge." That was exemplified in Sharp's words at Young's sentencing, according to Thomas.
"Maybe somebody can fix this," Sharp told Young.
Maybe that somebody is Sharp.
Sharp says he will work to get Young's sentence commuted, meaning Young would be released from prison. It could take years, leaving Young behind bars for a decade.
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Federal judge forced to sentence defendant to life because of mandatory minimums is stepping down and speaking out http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/04/17/why-federal-judge-kevin-sharp-left-bench-nashville/100419782/ …