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Cleckley, first black person on WV Supreme Court, dies at 77

By By Lacie Pierson
Staff writer
Franklin D. Cleckley

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Franklin D. Cleckley, who was the first black person to serve on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, died Monday at his home in Morgantown.

Cleckley was 77.

Current and former Supreme Court justices expressed their grief in a news release sent out Tuesday.

“Frank Cleckley was a giant in the West Virginia legal community,” Chief Justice Allen Loughry II said in the release. “He touched the lives of so many, both personally and professionally. It was my sincerest pleasure to get to know him during the past 25 years. He will be greatly missed.”

In 1994, Cleckley was appointed by Gov. Gaston Caperton to serve on the Supreme Court, making him the first black justice in the state. After two years on the bench, Cleckley decided not to seek re-election, and he returned to his job as a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law. He most recently worked as Arthur B. Hodges professor emeritus at the WVU law school.

On the Supreme Court, it was common for Cleckley to work late, and justices often would find draft opinions written by Cleckley waiting on their desks in the morning, said former Justice Thomas McHugh, who served with Cleckley and described him as “brilliant.”

“When he spoke, people listened, because they all knew that he knew was what he was talking about,” McHugh said. “He was a really good guy. His intellect was so high that it was really noteworthy and so advanced and, as a result, people followed him. He demanded perfection of lawyers and, I assume, his students.”

McHugh also shared stories about Cleckley, recalling an instance when he had asked a male attorney who showed up at court without wearing a tie to leave the courtroom, get a tie and return to argue his case. McHugh said Cleckley would, at times, lean over to him and say, “There’s a lawyer who didn’t take my evidence class,” if attorneys didn’t answer Cleckley’s questions to his satisfaction.

Former Justice Larry Starcher, who now teaches at the WVU College of Law, said he shared an office with Cleckley at WVU during recent renovations. Starcher said the minor inconvenience was a major factor in cementing an already solid friendship.

“The man was one of the finest humans I’ve ever known, and one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known,” Starcher said. “It saddens me to the core. I thought so highly of Frank.”

Cleckley was a native of Huntington, where he was born on Aug. 1, 1940.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Anderson College, in Anderson, Indiana, and he earned his law degree from the Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington, in 1965.

Cleckley also served three years as a U.S. Navy JAG officer before attending Harvard University, where he earned his master of laws, or LLM, degree. He followed his time at Harvard by pursuing post-graduate studies at Exeter University, in England, before joining the faculty at the WVU law school in 1969.

He established the Franklin D. Cleckley Foundation in 1990. The foundation is a nonprofit organization designed to give ex-convicts educational and employment opportunities. The Franklin D. Cleckley Symposium was established in 1992 at the WVU law school with the goal of bringing distinguished members of the civil rights and black communities to the campus as lecturers.

When Cleckley didn’t seek election to his spot on the Supreme Court, Justice Robin Davis was elected to the seat, and she said Tuesday she will “miss him greatly.”

“I got to know him initially as a law student,” Davis said. “Then he mentored me as Supreme Court justice. He was an honorable and decent man who loved the law and loved the state of West Virginia.”

During his time as a justice, Cleckley authored more than 100 majority opinions, in addition to concurring and dissenting opinions.

Not only did Cleckley earn his fair share of awards, but an award at Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia, is named for him. The Franklin D. Cleckley Award is presented by the Black Law School Association to an attorney who has made an outstanding effort in community service.

Cleckley was honored with the 2011 Liberty Bell Award from the West Virginia Supreme Court, the Civil Libertarian of the Year Award from the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union, the Thurgood Marshall Award from the West Virginia NAACP, the West Virginia Common Cause Award for Public Service, the Public Citizen of the Year Award from the West Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the West Virginia Human Rights commission Civil Rights Award.

Justice Margaret Workman described Cleckley as a “giant in West Virginia history” and offered condolences to his children, sister and the rest of his family and friends. Workman said she got to know Cleckley as a law school professor, a judicial colleague and a dear friend.

“His belief in the basic principle that justice is a fundamental right for all people was manifested in his life, his teaching, his writings and the significant body of judicial work he created in only two years on the court,” Workman said. “His work will benefit generations of West Virginians.”

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