NASHVILLE (WSMV) - Tennessee Supreme Justice Cornelia A. Clark passed away overnight after battling cancer.
She was 71.
She was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2005 by Governor Phil Bredesen and was reelected in 2006 and 2014.
She also served as Chief Justice from 2010 to 2012.
“Justice Clark was a member of the Tennessee judicial family for over 30 years and has mentored hundreds of judges,” said Chief Justice Roger A. Page. “She loved the Tennessee judicial system and has made it better in immeasurable ways. 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.”
When she was appointed by Governor Ned McWherter in 1989 to the trial bench covering the 21st Judicial District of Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties, she became the first woman trial judge to serve rural counties in Tennessee.
“Justice Clark and I served together on the Supreme Court for thirteen years. We shared many experiences as colleagues and as friends,” Justice Sharon G. Lee said. “Our friendship strengthened over the years as we faced challenges together—such as the contested retention election in 2014—and through our laughter and good times when we joined with fellow women judges at our ‘Tennessee Chicks Rule’ dinners, and when we traveled to Cuba to study their judicial system. I saw first-hand Justice Clark’s tireless dedication to her faith, her family, her friends, the judiciary, and access to justice for all. She faced every challenge and obstacle with grace, hard work, and humility.”
She had the longest tenure of the Justices currently serving on the Supreme Court.
“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,” said Justice Jeff Bivins. “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.”
She was well-known for precise and detailed legal analysis and writing style, as well as being an active and thoughtful questioner during oral arguments.
In total, she was on the bench for more than 1,100 Supreme Court cases.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University and Harvard University, she taught history for four years in the Atlanta area until going back to study at Vanderbilt University Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review Editorial Board.
In 1984, she became one of the first woman partners in a large Nashville law firm where she practiced in Nashville and Franklin.
“Justice Clark embodied the heart and soul of the Franklin community,” said long-time friend and colleague Julian Bibb. “Justice Clark was in love with Franklin all of her life, helping to guide its development and growth, first in her role as City Attorney during the 1980s, and then by taking on volunteer positions with many civic and charitable organizations, including with her church, Franklin First United Methodist Church. Justice Clark was a servant leader who continually gave back to help improve the lives of others in Franklin. From organizations like The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to organizations that helped bring the community together, like Franklin Tomorrow, Justice Clark has long been recognized for her many contributions to her hometown.”
She joined legal organizations that advocated the advancement of women in leadership roles, including the Lawyers’ Association for Women, Marion Griffin Chapter, and the Tennessee Lawyer’s Association for Women.
“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.’ Justice Clark tells this story as an example of how you never know when you have the opportunity to touch someone’s life. But, it is also an example of what it was like to be around Connie Clark, and the effect she had as a jurist, with her common sense, humility, intellect, and ability to connect.”
She was just the fourth woman to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the second female Chief Justice.
In 2004, she was named one of the 21 members of the ABA Commission on the American Jury, which is dedicated to educating the public about, and reinvigorating the nation's commitment to, jury service.
She also 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.
She served as the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission, from 2014 until her death.
“Justice Clark's long and unwavering support as liaison to the Tennessee Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission was the foundation to Tennessee being recognized as a national leader in access to justice initiatives,” said Bill Coley, chair of the ATJ Commission. “Her commitment to this work was an inspiration to all, including me, who have joined in this effort. We are committed to continuing this work in a way that honors Justice Clark.”
She has received many awards recognizing her service to the law, including the Janice M. Holder Access to Justice Award from the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services; the Tennessee Bar Association’s Justice Frank F. Drowota III Outstanding Judicial Service Award; the Vanderbilt University School of Law Distinguished Service Award; the Grayfred Gray Award from the Tennessee Association of Professional Mediators; the Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey Award from the Lawyers’ Association for Women - Marion Griffin Chapter; the Liberty Bell Award given by the Williamson County Bar Association; and the Pioneer Award from Vision 2020.
She was also named Appellate Judge of the Year by the Southeastern Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates and was inducted into the Nashville YWCA Academy for Women of Achievement.
In regards to now confirming a new justice, Governor Bill Lee will formally notify the Governor's Council for Judicial Appointments of the vacancy and the position will be posted on the Tennessee Courts website.
The Governor's Council will hold a public hearing to interview the candidates and, at the end of the hearing, will vote to recommend three candidates to the Governor.
The Governor will then appoint a candidate, who will go before the General Assembly for confirmation.
Among those close to Justice Clark, many state officials have released their statements on her passing:
Maria and I are deeply saddened by the news of Justice Connie Clark’s passing. 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. 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. Flags across the state will fly at half-staff in Justice Clark’s honor. - Gov. Bill Lee
Justice Connie Clark devoted her life to serving Tennesseans, and it is with a heavy heart that we mourn her passing. Justice Clark was a trailblazer in Tennessee’s legal community and has left a lasting impact on our state. Please join me in praying for her family during this difficult time. -Senator Marsha Blackburn
I was honored to have known and worked with Justice Clark, an eighth-generation Tennessean whose contributions to the judiciary and the people of Tennessee will be felt for generations to come.
On the bench, Tennesseans could be confident she was fair, impartial, and thoughtful in applying the law; lawyers could expect a formidable judge. We always advised our folks to be overprepared before appearing in Justice Clark’s courtroom. She’ll be ready- you better be, too.
Off the bench, she was involved in nearly every program and project in the court system, including the Access to Justice Initiative where she was committed to ensuring the legal system is open and accessible to all Tennesseans. She mentored countless students and encouraged public service, and she was always happy to administer the oath of office to our new attorneys.
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. -Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III
We are saddened to hear of the passing of Justice Connie Clark. She served with great devotion and distinction throughout her career. She was highly respected by the Tennessee District Attorneys. I was privileged to know her since her time as a trial court judge and to work more closely with her during her time as Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. The judicial system has lost a champion and tireless worker. She will certainly be missed. -Guy Jones, Executive Director of the TN District Attorneys General Conference