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Williamson County: Clark to be sworn as states chief justice Sept. 1 at Historic Courthouse

When Franklin’s Cornelia “Connie” Clark is sworn in as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court on Sept. 1 in the Historic Williamson County Courthouse, it will be in the courtroom where she first appeared as an attorney, where she first sat as a judge and now, will become the highest ranking jurist in the state.

And it will be in front of hundreds of family members, fellow lawyers, past clients and local officials who aren’t necessarily surprised by the success of a woman who has spent much of her life within a couple of blocks of that courthouse while reaching far beyond it with the impact of her work.

But sit at a table at Puckett’s on Fourth Avenue in downtown one morning for breakfast with her and you soon realize she may just be the “Queen of Fourth Avenue.” The interview is interrupted repeatedly by well wishers of all sorts, who know Clark not just for her work in the courts, but as the former Franklin city attorney, an active member of Franklin First United Methodist Church, the Heritage Foundation or as a member of another board from a list that goes on and on.

“It is wonderful the reception I have received from friends and neighbors and people who do know me well and don’t know me well. It has almost been overwhelming for someone who has grown up here, who doesn’t come from special privilege, to see that you can do well,” said Clark, whose family has seen eight generations live in Williamson County.

Her former law partner and now Circuit Court Judge Jim Martin joked, “You could hold the ceremony in the Franklin High auditorium and I think there would still be overflow.”

Her mother, “Big Connie” Clark, works for Williamson County Economic Development, while her late father, William Howard Clark, built many condominiums and homes in Franklin before his death in August 1995.

“We are sitting across from where I was born at Dan German Hospital. I have always gone to church at First Methodist and I went to elementary school on the Square and one grandmother lived where my brother does now (on Fourth Avenue South) and the other lived on the other end of Fourth Avenue. I have made arrangements to be buried at Rest Haven Cemetery, so I am going to end up where I started,” she said. “The importance of remembering where you came from has symbolism for me.”

Accolades and honors are nothing new to Clark, and she graciously accepts the attention, and although she used to avoid public speaking, she is now a featured speaker nationally on ethics, women in the law and court administration.

On June 24, Clark was announced as one of seven Nashville women who will be inducted into the YWCA's Academy for Women of Achievement. Earlier this year, she was named Appellate Judge of the Year by the Southeastern Chapters of the American Board of Trial Advocates.  In 2005, Clark received the Williamson County Bar Association's inaugural Liberty Bell Award for promoting a better understanding for the rule of law and encouraging civic responsibility.


Family and Franklin

While the law and its ability to impact lives is Clark’s passion, family — and it appears Franklin as an extension of that — is extremely important to her. Her mother, brother, sister, five nephews and two nieces and the nine great nieces and nephews keep her grounded.

“We have Sunday dinner at my house every Sunday and now they even come when I am not there,” Clark said. “I think it keeps me grounded and while it is important in my life that I have had other experiences and lived other places, it helps you remember who you are and what is important. When I hear people talk about what the community wants, I think I really have a sense of what the community wants because I am surrounded with it every day.”

It doesn’t seem lost on her that two governors have appointed her to two different judicial benches, although as a young girl, she didn’t aspire to be a lawyer, let alone a judge.

“I went into teaching because that was a much more traditional to think about when I was growing up for girls. It never crossed my mind the first time to go to law school,” said Clark, a 1971 Vanderbilt University graduate, who then got her Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard University in 1972. She taught history and government for four years in Atlanta, both in the public and private school sector.

“I love teaching, if you could just put a teacher and students in a classroom and leave them alone, you probably would have had then, and now, a lot more people teaching. There were then and are now, political and financial and other considerations that get in the way, but the pure joy of getting a group of kids and seeing them finally get something and understand it has relevance and enjoy it, even for a moment, is a great satisfaction,” she said.


An interest in law

An interest in politics during college and graduate school led her to decide to go to law school as a way to effect more change.

“Lawyers I met during political campaigns, it really wasn’t what they were doing in the campaigns, but sitting around in a room and listening to them talk about how they could affect people’s lives. They happened to be young and idealistic at the time I was listening to them, but they thought they could change the world and a law degree was a way to help them really make a difference,” she said. “That appealed to the idealistic side of me and so it made me look at a law degree and what you can do once you are a lawyer.”

In Nashville at Vanderbilt University School of Law, Clark rediscovered her roots and a desire to return to Middle Tennessee, quickly followed by her family, from Atlanta.

As a second-year law student she applied to work with what was then Farris, Evans and Warfield, then Farris, Warfield & Kanaday, and is today Stites & Harbison. After graduation in 1979, she went to work full-time at Farris, Warfield & Kanaday and within five years, she was the firm’s first female partner, also the first woman at what would have been the city’s five or six largest law firms at the time.

“I did not go to law school wanting to litigate. I looked at what was administrative law, representing cities. I didn’t like to stand up and speak and I didn’t think I was terribly convincing and I still came out of law school thinking that,” she said, crediting Martin with developing her as both a litigator and apprenticing with him as a city attorney for Franklin.

It was a new day in Franklin in the late 1970s, with the election of a new mayor, Dr. Jeff Bethurum, and several new aldermen, and Martin said, “It wasn’t long before she was a meteor.

“She could do more work in less time than any person I ever met,” he said. ‘The city people loved her because they could call her and she could get an answer back to them quickly.”


Calls from governors

They continued to work together until 1987 when Martin resigned as city attorney and Clark succeeded him and she served until 1989, when Gov. Ned McWherter appointed her to fill unexpired term of Circuit Court Judge Elmer Davies.

Ironically, Clark became Martin’s mentor when he was appointed in late 2008 by Gov. Phil Bredesen to fill out the unexpired term of Judge R.E. Lee Davies, the son of the man Clark had replaced.

“Connie was my partner for years and been a friend since then and has become my mentor,” Martin said. “She grew up in Williamson County, generations of her family are here, and her career has been stellar. We have a new chief justice that we know and respect and it makes me extremely proud. It really is a special day for Williamson County. I don’t know that our community appreciates what a great achievement this is.”

Clark’s appointment by Bredesen to the Supreme Court in 2005 came after she had stepped down as a Circuit Court judge in 1999 to become director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a role she held until 2005.

In that role, she helped to bring efficiency, integrity and professionalism to the court system, working with the Tennessee General Assembly to bring credibility to the AOC’s request for funding while bringing increased training and other opportunities to judges and clerks across the state.

Not uncharacteristically when asked by the justices during her interview for the director’s job where she saw herself in five years, she said she told them, “I can see myself sitting in one of your seats.” And within that timeframe she was after Justice Frank Drowota stepped down after 25 years on the bench.


Making her mark

Clark will be only the second woman to serve as chief justice, following the two-year term of Justice Janice Holder. Other justices include William C. Koch Jr., Gary R. Wade and Sharon G. Lee.

Under Holder, the court undertook an effort to increase the access to justice for all Tennesseans, developer a more user friendly Web site which will include videos about the court system, links to local resources throughout the state, and downloadable plain-language forms, which will be approved by the Supreme Court. The new site is expected to launch in January 2011.

Clark wants to continue this objective while adding some additional objectives.

“The first objective is to continue efforts to improve access to justice and that encompasses all kinds of things, but it is about making courts more accessible to more people who have needs for legal services and to do that without costing more money or taking more time,” she said.

“The second thing is the education piece, to look at and enhance the efforts to help citizens better understand the entire court system by trying to hold court more places and to send more judges out to talk about the system and what we do,” Clark said. “The third thing is to continue to enhance relationships with the other branches of government so we better understand our respective roles and we can appreciate each other’s roles without interfering with them.”

Clark tears up when she tells the story of a Hickman County woman who wanted to be dismissed from a jury she was seating and rather let the woman go home after not seating her on the jury, she made her stay for the day’s docket.

She was surprised the next day to see the woman return with her young daughter in tow and take a seat in the audience. Unsure of why she was there, she approached the woman during a break and asked if she understood there was no need for her to be there that day.

“She said, ‘I didn’t like you very much. I thought you were terrible. You made me sit and I had to watch you all day long and then you weren’t so bad at what you were doing. You were telling those guys what to do and they were paying attention to you. I went home and told my husband about this. I have never seen a woman in a powerful position and I want my daughter to know that you can grow up to be anything you want to be.”

As she takes on this new role, Clark does seem to find the wonderment in the experience and the growth from being a small-town girl in Franklin.

“It is sometimes still hard for me to understand that a little girl from Franklin has been appointed by two governors to positions of such responsibility and that my colleagues have now chosen me as their leader. I can’t think of anything more in my professional career that would give me the satisfaction this has,” Clark said.

Posted on: 8/19/2010


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