Justice Clark’s commitment to legal aid likely to have lasting impact in Tennessee


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — It’s challenging to summarize a lifetime of public service, or even 16 years on the Tennessee Supreme Court, but to many, Justice Connie Clark can be summed up with four words: an advocate for all.

“She had a passion for making sure that everybody, every Tennessean, had access to justice, access to the advice and the support that is needed to get through legal issues,” said Kathryn Ellis, director of the Knoxville Family Justice Center.  

Clark passed away overnight after a short battle with cancer. She was appointed to the court in 2005 by former Gov. Phil Bredesen. In addition to being on the bench for more than 1,100 cases, and serving as chief justice, she was also a leader in ensuring access to justice.

Justice Clark is credited with forming the Faith and Justice Alliance, which combines faith leaders, attorneys, and other organizations, to remove barriers and offer legal aid to those in need. Across the state, hundreds of houses of worship offer thousands of hours of pro bono legal service to more than 7,000 people a year, according to the news release.

Ellis knew Clark through many professional associations, including the Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, but the majority of their interactions were through the faith and justice initiative.

“She thought that it was critical to involve the faith community in efforts to bring free, civil, legal, services to members of the community throughout the state,” she said.  

That initiative led to a large-scale faith and justice legal clinic program in Knox County. Groups including Legal Aid of East Tennessee, the Knoxville Bar Association, and members of the Faith and Justice Alliance, still offer free legal clinics at churches of different faiths and denominations. Ellis explained those clinics have also resulted in a new, local network of pastors and attorneys.

Clark’s work is likely to continue, as Ellis now plans to combine that network with Clark’s passion to do more good.

“One of the main things that we’re focusing on is taking that faith and justice initiative we learned from Justice Clark and converting it to a faith and justice initiative here for training faith leaders on issues of domestic violence, and how to identify domestic violence issues, and to make referrals to the family justice center,” Ellis said.

Ellis also took a moment to acknowledge Clark’s contribution to women in the legal profession.

“Through her work, through her success, she made it so that others in the state would say it’s possible,” Ellis said of Clark. “That’s something I can do,

“Yes, she was a Supreme Court Justice, but she was somebody who truly believed in access to justice. … She was always willing to work with students, work with new lawyers, work with female lawyers who were trying to navigate everything. She was just one of those people who had a lot of things on her plate, but yet was always willing to help and always wanted to make things better for everybody.”

Heather Anderson, a partner with Bernstein, Stair, and McAdams, LLP also responded to the news of Clark’s passing.

“I met Justice Clark almost 20 years ago,” Anderson said. “We were both members of the statewide group, the Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women. She was head of the Administrative Office of the Courts then. She was included on a short list which was sent to Gov. Bredesen for the TN Supreme Court.

“In 2005, I wrote a letter to Governor Bredesen urging him to appoint her to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and I was elated that he did. In her role as a Supreme Court Justice, she had a significant and positive impact on women in the legal profession statewide and we will all feel her absence.”