On behalf of the State Bar of Georgia, I am writing to express condolences to the family, colleagues and friends of former Chief Justice Harold G. Clarke of the Supreme Court of Georgia on his passing last week.
Throughout his five decades in the legal profession, Justice Clarke personified the ideal of service to the public and the justice system, working tirelessly to promote the cause of justice, uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of all citizens.
A native of Forsyth, he served his country as an Army veteran of World War II, having been assigned as managing editor of the Pacific Stars & Stripes in Japan.
His distinguished career in the legal profession began in 1950. For many years, he practiced law and published the local newspaper in Forsyth. He served 10 years in the Georgia House of Representatives.
His contributions to the legal profession and the justice system were numerous and significant, even before his appointment to the Supreme Court. He was one of the movers and shakers in the early 1960s who shepherded the unification of the State Bar of Georgia through the legislative process, and he served ably as president of the State Bar in 1976-77.
The mission statement of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism was inspired by calling lawyers to the following tasks, in the words of Justice Clarke:
1. To recognize that the reason for the existence of lawyers is to act as problem solvers performing their service on behalf of the client while adhering at all times to the public interest;
2. To utilize their special training and natural talents in positions of leadership for societal betterment;
3. To adhere to the proposition that a social conscience and devotion to the public interest stand as essential elements of lawyer professionalism.
Appointed by Gov. George Busbee in 1979, Justice Clarke served on the state’s highest court for 15 years, a time of great change in the judicial branch of state government. He retired in 1994 as chief justice of a court that better reflected Georgia’s diversity, with two women and two African-American justices.
Under his leadership, significant improvements were made to Georgia’s indigent defense system. In a tribute honoring Justice Clarke with the Georgia Supreme Court Lifetime Achievement Award, the Southern Center for Human Rights recalled, "In his State of the Judiciary address in 1993, Chief Justice Clarke spoke bluntly and passionately about the woeful state of indigent defense in Georgia at that time: ‘We set our sights on the embarrassing target of mediocrity. 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.’
"Chief Justice Clarke’s sage words, acknowledging the deeply troubling reality faced by poor people accused of crimes and the concomitant constitutional crisis in Georgia’s courtrooms, preceded conversations in the legislature and in the press by nearly a decade. His courageous determination to highlight and address an unpopular issue paved the way for the passage of Georgia’s Indigent Defense Act in 2003.
"The Georgia Indigent Defense Council presents the annual Harold G. Clarke Award in his honor, in recognition of "long-term commitment and dedication to the cause of ensuring equal justice for all of Georgia’s citizens."
Justice Clarke also served as chairman of the Institute of Continuing Legal Education and the Judicial Council of Georgia, president of the Flint Circuit Bar Association, a trustee of the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education, a board member of the American Judicature Society and Board of Visitors at the University of Georgia Law School, a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and American College of Trial Lawyers.
He was devoted to his faith as an elder in the Forsyth Presbyterian Church and commissioner from the Atlanta Presbytery to the Georgia Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
As Georgia’s current Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein stated last week, Justice Clarke was "a quiet, strong leader of principle." The state of Georgia and our justice system are better because he came our way. He will be missed by all who knew him.
Robin Frazer Clark, President, State Bar of Georgia