Leaving A Legacy: A Tribute to Professor Franklin Cleckley

Leaving A Legacy: A Tribute to Professor Franklin Cleckley

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to write a short tribute to Franklin Dorrah Cleckley. As an attorney, law professor and justice, he had a profound impact on generations of up-and-coming attorneys. He was a tireless advocate, beginning his career as a Navy JAG officer and then returning to his native West Virginia to practice law. In 1969, he became the first African American professor at the West Virginia University College of Law. Except for a two-year stint when he served on the West Virginia Supreme Court, Professor Cleckley taught law for the next 44 years.

Speaking from my own experience, I can tell you that Professor Cleckley was intimidating as a teacher. I don’t think he tried to be intimidating. But his command of the subject and his command of the classroom were unmistakable. I remember answering questions only to be told: “Well, that’s the fifth best answer. I’m looking for four better answers!” It was his unique way of pushing you to strive for excellence.

Professor Cleckley certainly left his mark on the law. His treatise on evidence is still regarded as the authoritative word on the subject in law offices and courtrooms throughout West Virginia. His litigation handbooks on civil and criminal procedure are also essential parts of any practitioner’s library. In those works, he shows an uncanny ability to be both scholarly and practical. His prose is powerful, but he also writes with a desire to give solid, down-to-earth guidance to judges and attorneys alike.

In September 1994, Professor Cleckley was appointed to a vacancy on the West Virginia Supreme Court - the first African American to sit on the high court. As a justice, he authored over a hundred majority opinions. Not surprisingly, his opinions are a reflection of his love of teaching. Every opinion was an opportunity to provide history and context, and to engage in a full blown, critical analysis of whatever issue was presented. When you read one of his opinions, you feel like you’re stepping into his classroom again.  You see him standing behind the lectern. You hear his booming voice. You soak up everything he says and walk away a little bit wiser and ready to take on the world.

Sadly, Professor Cleckley passed away last year. It’s fair to say that he left a lasting legacy. But his legacy is far more than the books and opinions he wrote. His most important legacy is the seed he planted in thousands of attorneys like me, who are still being shaped by his teaching, his life, and his character.

Image courtesy of WVU Today.

Today's blog: Jay Stoneking writes a touching tribute to Professor Franklin Cleckley, citing his many achievements and the legacy he left on the West Virginia law family.