Harold Clarke, former state Supreme Court justice, dies

Harold G. Clarke, one of the most influential jurists in state history who as chief justice led the Georgia Supreme Court through a dramatic transformation, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Clarke died in his home in his native Forsyth after a prolonged illness, surrounded by his family. He had been under hospice care.

“Justice Clarke was not only a great jurist but a quiet, strong leader of principle and the kindest man I have ever known,” Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said.

When Clarke was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1979, he joined a long succession of white men who had controlled the court for its 130-year history. When he stepped down 15 years later as chief justice, he had led a newly diverse court into a new era, reversing decades of judicial restraint and conservatism.

To some, Clarke was a liberal activist. To others, he was refreshingly progressive.

The gentle, unassuming Clarke didn’t care for labels. In a 1994 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he stated he wanted to be remembered “as caring for people’s problems.”

Clarke will be remembered for leaving an enduring mark on Georgia’s justice system, perhaps like no other’s over the past century. He challenged lawyers to improve their work and better themselves. He called for the elimination of bias and inequality from the courts. And he championed sweeping improvements to Georgia’s indigent defense system.

Harold Gravely Clarke was a journalist long before he became a judge. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he joined the U.S. Army during World War II and became managing editor of the Pacific Stars and Stripes.

After the war, he earned his law degree at UGA and married Nora Gordon, of Athens in 1952. He then returned to Forsyth where he started a law practice and became editor and publisher of the Monroe Advertiser, the local newspaper owned by his father.

In 1961, Clarke was elected to the state House of Representatives and served there for a decade. In 1976, he became president of the State Bar of Georgia, a position he used to promote professionalism.

“Ethics is a minimum standard which is required of all lawyers, while professionalism is a higher standard expected of all lawyers,” he once said. He called upon lawyers to develop relationships with fellow attorneys and judges that encouraged mutual respect.

In 1979, then-Gov. George Busbee appointed Clarke to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Clarke liked to start the day with his staff over coffee and he’d invariably tell one of his homespun stories. He routinely took his staff on mid-day jogs, often to Oakland Cemetery and back.

“He had so much common sense and he just loved life,” said Sue Coalson, Clarke’s secretary when he was on the court. “I don’t recall ever seeing him lose his temper or say a harsh word about anybody. That just wasn’t him.”

After Clarke became chief justice in 1990, the court added its first African-American and female justices. The court issued opinions that broadened the rights of free speech and expression, struck down death sentences, cracked down on overly aggressive prosecutors and expanded individual liberties.

“As chief justice, Harold Clarke gracefully transitioned the Georgia Supreme Court from one of the most staunchly conservative appellate courts in the country to an extraordinarily diverse and progressive court that made the protection of constitutional rights of Georgia citizens its top priority,” said former AJC staff writer Mark Curriden, who covered the court during that time.

Former Justice Willis Hunt called Clarke “the perfect chief.”

“He could listen to opposing sides and bring people together,” said Hunt, now a senior U.S. District judge in Atlanta. “Having Clarke at the helm was a big deal. He somehow was able to get everyone going in the same direction and to find common ground.”

Clarke briefly interrupted his tenure as chief, stepping aside in July 1992 to allow his friend, Justice Charles Weltner, who was battling cancer, to serve the last few months of his life as chief justice. After his swearing-in ceremony, Weltner returned to his office and, courtesy of Clarke, found new stationary bearing his name as chief justice.

After returning as chief justice, Clarke spoke out passionately about improving Georgia’s system of defending poor people accused of crimes.

“We set our sights on the embarrassing target of mediocrity,” Clarke said in his 1993 State of the Judiciary speech. “I guess that means about halfway. And that raises a question: Are we willing to put up with halfway justice? To my way of thinking, one-half justice must mean one-half injustice and one-half injustice is no justice at all.”

Clarke retired from the court in February 1994. He soon joined Troutman Sanders where he chaired the firm’s alternative dispute resolution group.

In 1995, Mercer University Press published Clarke’s memoir, “Remembering Forward,” in which he recounted what it was like to grow up in a small Southern town in the 1930s and 1940s.

Clarke is survived by his wife, Nora Gordon Clarke of Forsyth; a son, Harold G. Clarke Jr. of Forsyth; daughters Lee Ann Clarke Nash of High Falls, Julie Clarke Poole of Marietta and Beth Clarke Maner of Atlanta; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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