FORSYTH — Harold G. Clarke, a former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice remembered by colleagues as a kind man who tried to put attorneys at ease as they argued before the state’s highest court, has died. He was 85.
Clarke died Tuesday evening with his family by his side, current Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said in a statement Wednesday. Clarke served on the court from 1979 to 1994. He served as chief justice from 1990 to 1994.
“Justice Clarke was not only a great jurist, but he was a quiet, strong leader of principle and the kindest man I have ever known,” said Hunstein, who joined the court in 1992.
Ansley Barton, Clarke’s law assistant for 14 years, called him a legal visionary for his work championing issues such as alternative dispute resolution and government-appointed attorneys for poor defendants.
Clarke had a wonderful sense of humor, but never used it to attack anyone, most often using it to poke fun at himself, Barton said. He also recognized that arguing before the state’s highest court could be a rattling experience for attorneys and sought to make them feel comfortable, she said.
“He always beamed out at the lawyers like they were making better sense than anything in the world,” she said. “He just was such an encouraging person and wanted people to do their best.”
Clarke joined the Army during World War II and was sent to Japan, where he became the editor of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, Barton said.
After the war, he obtained his law degree at the University of Georgia and married Nora Gordon, of Athens, in 1952, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. He returned to his hometown, Forsyth, where he established a law practice and became editor and publisher of the Monroe Advertiser, the local newspaper owned by his father.
He served in the state House of Representatives for a decade after being elected in 1961 and became president of the State Bar of Georgia in 1976.
He was appointed to the state’s highest court in 1979 by then-Gov. George Busbee.
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 stepped aside briefly in July 1992 to allow his friend, Justice Charles Weltner, who was battling cancer, to be chief justice for the last few months of his life. After his swearing-in ceremony, Weltner returned to his office to find stationary bearing his name as chief justice, courtesy of his friend Clarke, the Journal-Constitution reported.
Clarke retired from the court in February 1994. He joined the law firm Troutman Sanders, where he chaired the firm’s alternative dispute resolution group.
Visitation is set for today from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Monroe County old bank building in Forsyth. A funeral service is set for 2:30 p.m. Friday at Forsyth Presbyterian Church.