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Thomas Clark

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VERO BEACH, FLA.: Thomas Clark, federal judge known as 'Great Dissenter'


Federal appeals court Judge Thomas A. Clark frequently offered the minority opinion. That never diminished his passion for justice or his respect for the law.

In fact, he was known as "The Great Dissenter," said Gayle Sumner of Dillard, his secretary for 18 years.

"It did not bother him to have the dissenting opinion. He respected the fact that another judge did not agree with him," said a colleague, Judge Phyllis Kravitch of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. "He got along with everyone whether they agreed with him or not."

The memorial service for Judge Clark, 84, an Atlanta native, will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at A.S. Turner & Sons. He died Sunday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at Alterra assisted living facility in Vero Beach, Fla.

Judge Clark was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and retired as senior judge of the 11th Circuit in 1999.

His intellectual gift for the law manifested itself in the way he analyzed cases and in his opinions, said Judge Kravitch. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court supported Judge Clark's minority opinion in a death sentence appeal in which the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense. Denying the appeal, he wrote in his dissenting opinion, "rewards the state for its underhandedness."

Perhaps his most stinging dissent was written in 1995 when he strongly opposed the court's affirming a death sentence against Eurus Kelly Waters, who kidnapped, molested and killed two women on Jekyll Island.

Judge Clark wrote that Mr. Waters' lawyers had performed so poorly the condemned man deserved a new trial. "The promise . . . that death penalties should not be indiscriminately imposed is now lost in this circuit," Judge Clark wrote. "Without adequate defense counsel, death without the opportunity for a life sentence becomes a matter of pure chance."

"He was very interested in equal rights and civil rights. He was a liberal," said his daughter, Julia Clark of Alpharetta. In the days when some clubs did not allow minorities to join, "we didn't join those clubs," she said.

"My father knew the law very well. He worked very hard to know it. He studied nights and weekends. It never was a natural gift for him. He was meticulous about knowing the law," she said.

He brought fundamental beliefs to the bench, said his son Dr. Christopher S. Clark of Vero Beach. "He was always a champion for people who didn't have power, the disenfranchised. He was a humanist; he was for the underdog," he said. "He fought very strongly for the rights of those who did not have opportunities."

A gentle, optimistic man full of hope, his father was open-minded and open to change, he said. He was wary of the exercise of power and wanted to be sure power was exercised fairly and justly. He was fun-loving and distinctive among jurists for his bushy, expressive eyebrows and the loud plaid sports coat --- referred to as his racetrack coat --- that he would wear for formal photographs, Mrs. Sumner said.

Off the bench, Judge Clark took pleasure in sailing. Its appeal, his daughter said, was to his "love of nature, feeling free and the fact he didn't have a motor going, just nature."

Survivors include another son, Thomas A. Clark Jr. of Proctorsville, Vt.; a stepson, Allen L. Carter of Middlefield, Conn.; a stepdaughter, Rosalyn Lackey Corder of Charlotte; and six grandchildren.

--- Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.

© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sept. 10, 2005
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