KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark, a public servant, educator, community leader and trailblazer passed away overnight Thursday at the age of 71 after a short battle with cancer. Justice Clark was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2005 by Gov. Phil Bredesen and was reelected in 2006 and 2014.  She served as chief justice from 2010 to 2012.

“She loved the Tennessee judicial system and has made it better in immeasurable ways,” current Chief Justice Roger A. Page. said. “As her colleague for the past five and one-half years, I observed her tremendous work ethic. Her keen mind was surpassed only by her kind and caring heart. She truly tried her best to decide each case based on the applicable law and nothing else. The Supreme Court will not be the same without her.”

Gov. Ned McWherter appointed Clark to the trial bench covering the 21st Judicial District of Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties in 1989. In doing so she became the first woman trial judge to serve rural counties in Tennessee.

Prior to joining the Court, she was the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts from 1999 to 2005. She also chaired the Tennessee Judicial Council and was the inaugural chair of the Judicial Evaluation Commission.  

Clark’s work reached far beyond the Supreme Court.  She was involved in nearly every program and project in the court system, including the Access to Justice initiative, as well as a being a fixture in bar, community, and religious organizations.

“Connie Clark’s service to the people of the state of Tennessee at all levels was inspiring and second to none. Her commitment to public service was unsurpassed,” Justice Jeff Bivins said. “She was a brilliant and incredibly fair jurist. Her institutional knowledge and expertise cannot be replaced.

“To me, she also was a trusted friend and colleague both before and since I joined the Court. I will so miss her not only in all Court matters but as a dear friend.”

Clark was the longest tenured Justice currently serving on the state Supreme Court. She was known for precise and detailed legal analysis and writing style, as well as being an active and thoughtful questioner during oral arguments. She was on the bench for more than 1,100 Supreme Court cases.

“Justice Connie Clark had a pitch-perfect judicial temperament. Always calm, measured, precise, and even-handed in her approach to the court’s decisions,” Justice Holly Kirby said. “In the important cases the Court takes on, she always strove to put aside any political considerations or personal judgment on the wisdom of actions of the other two branches of government. I’ll never attain Justice Clark’s level of judicial perfection, but she inspires me every day to try.”

Advocate for access

During her time on the Court, the Supreme Court declared Access to Justice to be its No. 1 strategic priority. Justice Clark whole-heartedly embraced this initiative.

Justice Clark travelled the state and around the country speaking to attorneys, judges, and other interested groups about the importance of judicial support for such activities. She pioneered the successful Faith and Justice Alliance, which brings attorneys into community faith-based and other civic organizations, where clients may feel more comfortable about sharing their problems than in a traditional courthouse or law firm setting. Today, hundreds of Tennessee houses of worship provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal service to more than 7,000 people a year.

“Throughout her five decades of public service, including 16 years on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Justice Clark was a fierce advocate for justice and a trailblazer for women in the legal profession,” Gov. Bill Lee said. “She also made a profound impact on our state as an active member of her church and the Franklin community. We are praying for the Clark family and join Tennesseans in honoring her incredible life and legacy.”

The Access to Justice Commission recently achieved its long-term goal of having at least half of all Tennessee attorneys provide pro bono legal services each year. In 2018, more than half of Tennessee attorneys performed more than 640,000 pro bono hours valued at more than $137 million.  

“On the bench, Tennesseans could be confident she was fair, impartial, and thoughtful in applying the law; lawyers could expect a formidable judge,” Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III said. “We always advised our folks to be overprepared before appearing in Justice Clark’s courtroom. She’ll be ready – you better be, too.

“You could be sure she lived by her own words, “It’s always good to remember where you came from,” which she did by serving her hometown, her church, and her state. While she will be deeply missed, she will be remembered and celebrated by not only those who knew her personally, but by all the beneficiaries of her service to Tennessee.”

Clark became the fourth woman to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2005, and in 2010 she became the second female Chief Justice. Since 2008, there has been a female majority on the Tennessee Supreme Court. With more than 16 years of service, Justice Clark had the second longest tenure of any woman serving on the Supreme Court.

“Justice Connie Clark devoted her life to serving Tennesseans, and it is with a heavy heart that we mourn her passing,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn said. “Justice Clark was a trailblazer in Tennessee’s legal community and has left a lasting impact on our state.”

Educator and community leader

After graduating from Vanderbilt University and earning a master of arts in teaching from Harvard University, Clark taught history for four years in the Atlanta area before returning to study law at Vanderbilt University Law School.

Upon graduation in 1979, Justice Clark practiced law in Nashville and Franklin, becoming, in 1984, one of the first woman partners in a large Nashville law firm. She specialized in municipal and employment law, and represented many cities, police departments, and several school boards.

She chaired the board of directors of the Nashville YWCA and served on the board of the League of Women Voters of Williamson County. Throughout the 1980s, Justice Clark supported and advocated for more women to be appointed and elected to the bench. 

She instructed fellow judges at the National Judicial College, American Academy of Judicial Education, and the American Institute for Justice, in addition to being a frequent guest speaker at various bar and other organizations. Clark also served for 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Law and served on the faculty of the Nashville School of Law.

“I heard Justice Clark tell a story about how, early in her career as a trial judge in a rural county, she encountered a woman who was angry at being called for jury service and was rude and disrespectful. Judge Clark excused the woman from jury duty, but ordered her to sit and observe the court proceedings for the day,” said Margaret Behm, a partner at Dodson Parker Behm & Caparella, and a long-time friend and colleague of Justice Clark. “The following morning, Judge Clark was surprised to see the woman with her daughter in her courtroom. The woman told Judge Clark, ‘I wanted my daughter to be able to see that there is a woman who can be in charge of this, because I want her to know that she can be anything she wants to be.’”

In total, Justice Clark has served on more than 25 boards and worked with nearly 75 organizations, commissions, advisory groups, or task forces since beginning her legal career in 1979.