Retirement Ceremony Celebrates Court of Appeals Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr.

April 3, 2020

During his 25-year tenure on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr. won respect and recognition for his well-written opinions and indomitable spirit. The widespread admiration for Judge Susano among Tennessee’s judicial and legislative leaders was evident at a retirement celebration held for him in late February at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville. At the celebration, friends, colleagues, and family members filled the room and shared their thoughts and feelings about Tennessee’s longest serving appellate judge. Video and photo links are at the bottom of this story.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee has known Judge Susano for over 40 years, and became his colleague in 2004 when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals. At that time, Judge Susano had already been on the Court for a decade. He soon became a mentor to Justice Lee, taking her under his wing at the beginning of her appellate career. That willingness to reach out and help others with enthusiasm is a hallmark of his personality.

“Everyone loves Judge Susano because they know he loves them, he cares about them, and he has a zest for life that is genuine and unmistakable,” Justice Lee said.

Those traits combine with Judge Susano’s intelligence and determination to make a formidable jurist. All of these elements were evident in his work on the bench.

“His decisions are fair, they’re based on the law, and good sound common sense,” Justice Lee said. “He decides cases with wisdom, compassion, and respect for everyone. He knew his decisions were important to people so he made sure he got it right. His opinions were beautifully written, clear, and concise. He truly is a role model for everybody in the judiciary.”

Before Judge Susano was appointed to the bench by Governor Ned McWherter in 1994, he was in private practice for 30 years. One of his partners for a considerable amount of that time was Bernard Bernstein. At the retirement celebration, Bernstein described how to this day he will run into former clients of Judge Susano’s who invariably ask about him.

“They all want to be brought up to date on what’s happened to Charlie Susano, which I’m very happy to tell them,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein and Judge Susano worked on a wide variety of cases in their practice. Bernstein remembered especially their defense of student demonstrators during the civil rights era. No matter the case, though, Judge Susano always brought the same talent and dedication to bear, as a lawyer and as a judge.

“As we all know Charlie’s tenure on the Tennessee Court of Appeals has been marked by good writing, good lawyering, and good results,” Bernstein said. “The public has been well-served during all those years… We can all be very proud of what Judge Susano has accomplished. I know that I personally am very, very proud.”

Some of the most heartfelt comments at the event came from Judge Susano’s longtime friend Phil Scheurer, a former administrator at the University of Tennessee.

The Susanos and the Scheurers have been friends for 50 years, and Scheurer reflected on some of the more personal aspects of Judge Susano’s character.

“Charlie of all my acquaintances over the years is probably the most prayerful person I have ever met,” he said. “You don’t know it, but he’s probably prayed for all of you very quietly because he knows that there is always a better way, and he finds peace in prayer, and he likes others to find that same peace. The mark of a good friend.”

Scheurer also recalled difficult times when Judge Susano was there for his family, including when Scheurer’s daughter received a devastating cancer diagnosis. Judge Susano proved to be the calm, persuasive voice that helped her get her affairs in order.

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Scheurer said.

Scheurer closed with some remarks that were borrowed from his grandson. When he was 8-years-old, Scheurer’s grandson chose Judge Susano to interview for a school assignment. The young boy came away completely impressed by Judge Susano’s attitude toward life and toward his disability, the result of a fall in the early ‘90s

“He has handled his 20 years of having no feeling in his legs quite well,” the boy wrote. “You would think that a man who had to go through that would be very cranky, but he is the nicest man you’ll ever meet. He loves children, dogs, and his friends… I think Mr. Susano has overcome adversity because he had a major problem and learned to live with it. I picked him for my interview because he is really a nice man who is courageous and helpful. .. He may not look like a hero to you, but, to me he is as brave as it gets.”

Toward the end of the ceremony, Judge Susano’s son, Charles Susano III, the Knox County Circuit Court Clerk, spoke.

“As parents we all look back at some point hoping that we’ve done a good job raising our kids,” he said. “Trying to teach those fundamental traits that make them productive members of society, but also passing along the little things that help them become good and decent and loving people. I know I speak for my brother and sister in saying you have both done that and more. Making sure that we knew you believed in us even when we didn’t always believe in ourselves. Offering us advice both solicited and unsolicited, but always well meaning. And showing us that life is in the doing, and no matter what life throws at you, always keep moving forward, and that with love and faith and God anything is possible.”

Judge Susano had the last word, expressing amazement at the size of the crowd in attendance and thanking those who took the time to come and speak at the ceremony.

“At times I thought there must be somebody else they must be talking about,” he said with a smile. “I know myself well enough to know a lot of lying was done tonight.”

He ended on a warm note, expressing his deep affection for the many friends he had made over the years.

“I love every one of you,” he said. “You’ve been so good to me and my family. God bless you.”

Judges made up a substantial portion of the crowd at the celebration. Justice Lee recognized them at the beginning of the event. They included:

From the Tennessee Supreme Court: Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, Justice Holly Kirby, Justice Sharon Lee

From the Tennessee Court of Appeals: Chief Judge D. Michael Swiney, Judge John McClarty, Judge Thomas Frierson, Former Court of Appeals Judge Joe Duncan

From the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals: Judge Kelly Thomas, Judge Norma Ogle

From Other State and Local Courts: Chancellor Jerri S. Bryant, Judge Kristi M. Davis, Judge Thomas J. Wright, Judge Don Elledge (current president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference), Judge Deborah C. Stevens, Judge Greg McMillan, Judge William T. Ailor, Chancellor John Weaver, Chancellor Michael W. Moyers, Judge Kyle Hixson, Judge Tim Irwin, Judge John Rosson, former Chancellor and Administrative Office of the Courts Director Bill Young, former Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz, former Judge Joe Hagler, former Judge Randy Nichols

From the Federal Courts: Judge Thomas A. Varlan, Magistrate Judge H. Bruce Guyton, Judge Suzanne Bauknight, U.S. Attorney Doug Overbey

Judge Susano’s former law partner and the current president of the Tennessee Bar Association Sarah Sheppeard was also present.

The ceremony was also well-attended by some of the state’s political leaders. These include:

Former Governor Bill Haslam, Lt. Governor Randy McNally, United States Representative Tim Burchett, former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, State Senator Becky Duncan Massey, State Senator Richard Briggs, State Representative Martin Daniel, State Representative Rick Staples, Chelsea Ivens (representing U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn), Jane Chedester (representing U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander), Knox County Commissioner Hugh Nystrom

Earlier this year, Rep. Burchett made remarks on the floor of the United States House of Representatives honoring Judge Susano. At the ceremony, Lt. Gov. McNally discussed a State Senate resolution in honor of Judge Susano signed by himself, Sen. Massey, and Sen. Briggs.

“We very much appreciate your service to the judiciary,” Lt. Gov. McNally said. “It’s been a sterling record. You’ve got a great family, and we really do appreciate what you’ve done.”

Commissioner Nystrom likewise discussed a resolution that the Knox County Commission had passed in recognition of Judge Susano.

“There’s a whole generation of leaders in this community and in this state who have been inspired by you,” he said.

Judge Charles D. Susano, Jr. was born in 1936 and grew up in Knoxville, where he graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School. He graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame University in 1958. Following graduation he served in the United States Army for two years. He graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1963, having been admitted to the Order of the Coif.

He clerked for Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Hamilton Burnett, and then went on to 30 years of private legal practice. In 1994, he was appointed to the Eastern Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals by Governor Ned McWherter.

Among his many accolades, Judge Susano was recipient of the Justice Frank F. Drowota III Outstanding Judicial Service Award in 2017; Appellate Judge of the Year from the American Board of Trial Advocates, Tennessee Chapter in 2003; and Courage in the Face of Adversity Award from the Knoxville Bar Association in 2004.

Judge Susano has been married to his wife, Carolyn, for 55 years and has three children, Stephen, Maria, and Charles III. He also has six grandchildren, Madison, Sydney, Hanna, Sophie, Jacob, and Hudson.

View photos from the event

View a highlight video of the event

View a video of the full retirement ceremony

Judge Susano