West Virginia legal leaders mourn death of Cleckley

By Chris Dickerson | Aug 15, 2017

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Franklin Cleckley poses with current Justices Robin Jean Davis, left, and Margaret Workman. (Photo courtesy of the state Supreme Court)  

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia legal community is mourning the death of former state Supreme Court Justice Franklin D. Cleckley, who died Aug. 14 at his home in Morgantown.

Cleckley was 77.

“Frank Cleckley was a giant in the West Virginia legal community,” current Chief Justice Allen Loughry said. “He was an excellent jurist, and his opinions were eloquent and scholarly.

“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.”

Justice Margaret Workman agreed.

“Frank Cleckley’s immense contribution to the development of the law clearly makes him a giant in West Virginia history,” Workman said. “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. His work will benefit generations of West Virginians.

“He was my law school professor, my judicial colleague and my dear friend. He had a huge influence in shaping my life and my legal thinking. Countless people will always remember his spirit, his humor, his kindness, and all the quiet, unheralded ways he helped people. He made our state and all of us better. My deepest sympathy to his children, his sister, and all his family and friends. We have lost a giant.”

Cleckley was born Aug. 1, 1940, in Huntington. He received his undergraduate degree at Anderson College in Anderson, Ind., and his law degree from Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington in 1965. He served three years as a Navy JAG officer then attended Harvard University, where he received his L.L.M. in 1969, before pursuing post-graduate studies at Exeter University in England.

He joined the faculty at the West Virginia University College of Law in 1969. In 1990, he established the Franklin D. Cleckley Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to help give former convicts educational and employment opportunities.

In 1992, the Franklin D. Cleckley Symposium was established at West Virginia University to bring distinguished members of the civil rights and African-American communities to the campus as lecturers. He was the author of the Evidence Handbook for West Virginia Lawyers and the West Virginia Criminal Procedure Handbook.

On May 3, 1994, former Gov. Gaston Caperton appointed him to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, making him the first black Justice in West Virginia.

Cleckley chose not to seek election to the Supreme Court and instead returned to the College of Law at the end of 1996. During his time as a Justice, he authored more than 100 majority opinions in addition to concurring and dissenting opinions.

Justice Robin Jean Davis was elected in 1996 to fill Cleckley’s seat after he decided not to run for election. Cleckley invited her to work alongside him at the Supreme Court for the six weeks between the election and her swearing-in.

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

At Mercer University in Macon, Ga., the Franklin D. Cleckley Award is given by the Black Law School Association to an attorney who has made an outstanding effort at community service. He received many awards himself, including 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.

“He was brilliant,” said former Justice Thomas McHugh, who worked with Cleckley on the Supreme Court. “When he spoke, people listened because they all knew that he knew what he was talking about.

“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.”

Former Justice Larry Starcher, who now teaches at WVU College of Law, shared office space with Justice Cleckley during the law school’s recent renovations.

“He came in about every day,” Starcher said. “We chit-chatted. We were friends before that, but that cemented our relationship. “The man was one of the finest humans I’ve ever known and one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known.

“It saddens me to the core. I thought so highly of Frank.”

WVU College of Law Dean Gregory W. Bowman also praised Cleckley.

“Frank was a giant in legal education and in law practice,” Bowman said. “He had one of the keenest intellects I have ever known, and he was admired and loved as a friend and colleague across the state and the country. He will be missed. Please keep his family in your thoughts.”

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