SALT LAKE CITY — Clients have sometimes questioned the legal bill they received from Thomas R. Lee — not because it was high, but because they wondered how he could charge so little for such a well-written brief.
"He's as smart a lawyer as there is in this country," said Gregory Phillips, a partner with Howard, Phillips & Andersen, the law firm for which Lee practices. "All our clients, without exception, want him involved in their legal work."
Now Gov. Gary Herbert wants Lee to put his mind to the state's trickiest cases as a member of the Utah Supreme Court. The governor nominated Lee on Friday to replace the retired Michael J. Wilkins. The state Senate will hold a confirmation hearing June 16.
"He has the intellectual firepower and reasoning to take on the job and be respected in his decisions," Herbert said of his first nominee to the state's high court.
Lee, 45, works as a professor in the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. He is the son of former U.S. Solicitor General and BYU President Rex E. Lee. His brother, Mike Lee, is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
If the Senate confirms Lee and his brother wins the U.S. Senate race, they could join the Matheson brothers as Utah's second judge-congressman duo. Democrat Jim Matheson represents the 2nd Congressional District, while his brother, Scott Matheson Jr., sailed through a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month and is expected to win appointment to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
As a justice, Lee said, his philosophy would be one of limited government. The role of a judge, he said, is to say what the law is, not what it should be.
"A Supreme Court justice needs to understand that he is not a politician. He needs to understand that the judiciary is a passive branch of government. His decisions should not proactively seek to set policy," he said in an interview.
Lee has earned a national reputation as a top-notch appellate lawyer, arguing cases before appeals courts nationwide and the U.S. Supreme Court. His expertise lies in intellectual property, copyright and trademark litigation, and he has represented automakers such as Porsche, Volkswagen and Ford. He also has represented Utah in several matters, including a challenge to the results of the 2000 Census.
In addition to his experience in the appellate courts, Lee is familiar with the intricacies of appellate decision making. He worked as a law clerk for 4th District Circuit Court of Appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In a letter of recommendation, Thomas praised Lee as a scholar and lawyer of great character, writing that his "career and his life bespeak so much that is good about our country and our legal system."
Scott Cameron, BYU associate dean of external relations, said Lee has the temperament to be on the bench. "He is willing to listen to other people and other's people's arguments," Cameron said.
Lee has not served as a judge, a factor Herbert said he considered in making his selection. But Lee's academic and private sector experience "alleviated any concerns I had of him not having worn robes."
Having seen both sides of the appellate process will serve Lee well on the Utah Supreme Court, Phillips said.
"He's had experience doing exactly what he's going to be doing now," he said.
As a legal scholar, Lee analyzed court decisions and wrote articles that aimed to question the law and whether judicial opinions made sense. He would bring that analytical background to the bench.
"I think that's a principal contribution I can make," he said.
Garner Meads, a recent BYU law graduate who is preparing to take the bar exam, said Lee contributed to his academic success as a mentor with an open-door policy.
"I just felt like he had a wealth of knowledge he was willing to share with students. … As long as a student was willing to make an effort, he was willing to reciprocate," Meads said. "On countless occasions, I found myself in his office looking for advice on things."
Cameron, who has known Lee since he was 8 years old, said it's interesting to see him do many of the things his father did. Both attended the University of Chicago Law School and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justices.
As a young boy, Lee said he assumed he would be a lawyer because his father, the founding dean of the BYU law school who died of cancer in 1996, was a lawyer. His thoughts changed early in high school, but after taking some government classes and participating in a moot court, he became hooked on the law.
Outside work, Lee is an avid runner. He also enjoys boating, snowboarding and basketball. He and his wife, Kimberly, have six children, including a son who this week left on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's been a roller coaster of a week," Lee said.