Cornelia Clark

Legal community mourns passing of Justice Clark

The legal community is mourning the passing of state Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark at age 71.

Clark was named to the high court bench in 2005 by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. She was chief justice from 2010 to 2012.

Here’s the full statement from the Administrative Office of the Courts:

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark, whose public service to the judiciary and her community spanned over four decades, passed away overnight, at the age of 71 after a short battle with cancer. Justice Clark was first appointed to the Supreme Court in 2005 by Governor Phil Bredesen and was reelected in 2006 and 2014.  She 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.”

Prior to joining the Court, she was the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts from 1999 to 2005. 

“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.”

When Governor Ned McWherter appointed Justice Clark to the trial bench covering the 21st Judicial District of Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties in 1989, she became the first woman trial judge to serve rural counties in Tennessee. She paved the way for fellow judges to be accepted by clerks, litigants, lawyers, and other judges.

“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.”

Justice Clark had the longest tenure of the Justices currently serving on the Supreme Court. 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.

“Justice Connie Clark had a pitch-perfect judicial temperament. Always calm, measured, precise, and even-handed in her approach to the Court’s decisions,” said Justice Holly Kirby. “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.”

Justice Clark’s scope of work, however, 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 in Middle Tennessee and nationally for more than 40 years.

An Early Advocate For Women In The Legal Profession

After graduating from Vanderbilt University and earning a master of arts in teaching from Harvard University, Justice Clark taught history for four years in the Atlanta area. She went on to study law at Vanderbilt University Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review Editorial Board.

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 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.  She also 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.  By 1989, it was her turn to slip into the black robe and join the growing ranks of female jurists across the state and country.

“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.”

In 2005, Justice Clark became the fourth woman to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court, 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. Perhaps more notable, she made a specific point to ensure the doors opened for her earlier by others continue to widen and be accessible to judicial candidates from all backgrounds, genders, and races.

A Statewide and National Leader and Teacher

Justice Clark chaired the Tennessee Judicial Council and was the inaugural chair of the Judicial Evaluation Commission.  She previously served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Conference of State Court Administrators.  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. 

Forever a teacher, 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.  Justice Clark served for ten years as an adjunct professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Law and served on the faculty of the Nashville School of Law.  As a trial judge, Justice Clark served as Vice-President of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and Dean of the Tennessee Judicial Academy, and was a member of the Supreme Court Commissions on the Rules of Civil Procedure and Technology. 

She spoke frequently to civic and leadership groups about the importance of the rule of law and of an independent, accountable judiciary in protecting the constitutional rights accorded all persons and groups. 

Ensuring Access to Justice for All Tennesseans

Justice Clark served as the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission, from 2014 until her death. During her time on the Court, the Supreme Court declared Access to Justice to be its number one 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.

“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.”

The ATJ 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, 52.85 percent of Tennessee attorneys performed over 640,000 pro bono hours valued at more than $137 million.  In addition, the ATJ Commission developed court-approved forms to assist litigants who are representing themselves, including divorce forms and parenting plan forms.  These forms have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times since their creation.

A Lifelong Active Member of the Faith Community

Justice Clark was a lifelong active member of First United Methodist Church in Franklin, where she served as lay leader and member of the finance committee, the Trustees, and the staff parish relations committee.  She previously served as chair of the Site Selection and Building Committee during the church’s move to its current location in 2015.  She served for the last ten years as an at‑large member to the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  She was elected in 2012, 2016, 2019, and 2020 as a Tennessee Conference lay delegate to General Conference, the Church’s international legislative body that meets once every four years. She chaired the General Administration Committee in 2016. She also served as Chair of the UMC Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals.

Justice Clark served as chair of the United Methodist Publishing House Board and as a member of the Board of Trustees of Martin Methodist Foundation. She previously served as vice chair of the Board of Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee, until it became U.T. Southern, as part of the University of Tennessee system, on July 1, 2021.

A Fixture In Tennessee Bar And Community Organizations

Justice Clark always was a busy person. Her record of bar and community service is expansive and includes organizations spanning from those focused on her beloved hometown of Franklin, where her family has lived for ten generations, to many bar associations. She is a past Board member of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.  She was co-chair of the original Steering Committee of Franklin Tomorrow, Inc., and served on its Board of Directors for the first four years of its existence.  She served as chair of the City of Franklin Land Use Plan Steering Committee and as citizen chair of the City of Franklin Charter Revision Committee.  She is a former member of the Williamson County-Franklin Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.  She served as the first regional Allocations Panel chair of the United Way while serving as a member of the Williamson County United Way Board of Directors. 

“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.”

Justice Clark was a member of the Williamson County Bar Association, Tennessee Bar Association, American Bar Association, Tennessee Lawyers Association for Women (founding member), Lawyers Association for Women, Marion Griffin Chapter (former board member), Nashville Bar Association (former board member and Second Vice President), National Association of Women Judges, and the Nashville, Tennessee, and American Bar Foundations.  She was the first woman to serve as chair of the Tennessee Bar Foundation.  She also was a member of the Tennessee John Marshall American Inn of Court and the Harry Phillips American Inn of Court.

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.

Recognition For Her Service

Justice Clark 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. Clark 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.