It was no joke when, on April 1, Kathleen Gomes was appointed by the Shelby County Commission to take the seat being vacated by retiring Probate Court Judge Robert Benham.
Gomes will run next year when the position, an eight-year term, comes up again for vote, but the recent appointment was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that began when she was a child growing up in Chattanooga.
“My mother was a social worker, so I was raised around the idea of trying to help people,” Gomes said. “But after seeing that she didn’t really have a lot of authority to help people other than what she was restricted to do, when I was in college, I decided that the only way to really help people was to be a lawyer.”
She studied political science at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and then ventured across the state to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
After the first semester, however, she moved to Washington for the opportunity to work for a new congresswoman from Chattanooga for a year. She returned, finished the first year of law school, and then was asked by state treasurer Harlan Mathews to work for him in Nashville.
She finished her stop-and-go law student career in 1980 and went to work for the law firm representing the William B. Tanner Co. media empire.
“I’m a singer, and originally wanted to do entertainment law as well as other things, so I got a job with the law firm that represented the Tanner Co.,” she said.
After a few years Gomes went out on her own and has been with Peppel, Gomes & MacIntosh PC for 28 years. Her area of expertise became, and has been for the past 15 years, probate law. By law, she has six months to wind down her current cases and transfer them and clients to other attorneys. Cases pending in Benham’s courtroom, as well, will be transferred to another.
“My mother was a social worker, so I was raised around the idea of trying to help people. ... I decided that the only way to really help people was to be a lawyer.”
Probate Court judge
Gomes said probate used to be the practice of older lawyers whose clients had died and needed wills and estates tended to, but that has changed. She segued into the area and has loved it ever since, a reflection on the help her mother gave people and what she was limited in giving.
“It goes back to the original roots of why I became a lawyer to begin with, in Probate Court you really do get to help people,” she said. “You see people at their most vulnerable, either that they have just lost someone or they have a parent who needs assistance or they have a child who’s mentally ill and needs the assistance of the court.”
It’s an immediate help, too, she says, and not the sort of long, invested lawsuits that might take years before results are realized.
“I find that rewarding,” Gomes said. “It’s one of the few areas of the law, to me, that you can sit back and finish the day and know that you helped someone.”
If that weren’t enough for Gomes, she also sits on the board of Arc of the Mid-South, an agency that provides advocacy and services for individuals with disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and muscular dystrophy.
Her appointment as judge is another way her life has come full circle and back to the sense of responsibility instilled in her by her mother. It’s the authority she’s looked for to really make a difference in the lives of those who need help.
“There are a lot of things I’ve been talking with a number of lawyers about that we can do and get more involved in the community as far as letting people know what things are available,” she said. “I think that we need to do more as a bar association or as lawyers – and certainly as judges – to let people know what’s available and that’s something that I intend to do, and also to keep an open door in my courtroom.”