Disillusioned by Mandatory Sentences, Judge Joins Civil Rights Firm

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Why would a federal judge leave a lifetime appointment, opportunities for advancement, and an excellent retirement plan to go back to the trenches of law practice?

Three words: mandatory minimum sentences.

Judge Kevin H. Sharp sentenced a young man to life because it was mandatory under sentencing guidelines, but he regretted the decision.

"If there was any way I could have not given him life in prison I would have done it," Sharp told the Tennessean.

Be More Proactive

Sharp, the former chief judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, said he was leaving the bench because mandatory minimum sentences bothered him. He will join Sanford Heisler as a name partner and pursue plaintiff's employment and civil rights cases.

"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."

Sharp retired after six years on the federal bench, where he served three years as chief judge. Prior to his appointment, he represented individuals and businesses in employment and qui tam suits.

He said he joined Sanford Heisler because he liked their practice, and he had worked before with partner David Sanford on a race discrimination case.

USA v. Young

Chris Young, 28, is serving a life term in Lexington, Kentucky. Sharp sent him there in 2014.

It was also a turning point in the judge's life, who said Young did not deserve life in prison. "What they did was wrong, they deserved some time in prison, but not life."

Young was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Because he had two prior drug-dealing convictions, sentencing guidelines mandated a life term. Sharp imposed the term, but expressed his concerns at the sentencing hearing.

"Maybe somebody can fix this," he told the defendant.

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