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WVU mourns the passing of Justice Frank Cleckley

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Justice Franklin Cleckley, in his office at the WVU College of Law.
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Justice Franklin D. Cleckley, the Arthur B. Hodges Professor of Law Emeritus at the West Virginia University College of Law, passed away in Morgantown on August 14.

“Frank was a giant in legal education and in law practice,” said  Gregory W. Bowman, dean of the College of the Law. “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.”

Cleckley taught at WVU Law from 1969 to 2013, mentoring future judges, lawyers, state and national legislators, educators and business and community leaders for more than four decades.

He was the first African-American faculty member at WVU Law, and the first full time African-American professor at WVU.

"Justice was Professor Cleckley’s true north.  It guided all he did,” said WVU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Joyce McConnell . “In the classroom, students respected his commitment to excellence because they knew that is what justice demands. And those who lined up outside his door did so because they knew he would seek justice on their behalf when no one else would.”

He was also the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. He served from 1994 to 1996 and authored more than 100 majority opinions.

“He led the court when it was the finest Supreme Court the state has ever had,” said Robert Bastress , WVU’s John W. Fisher II Professor of Law.

David Fryson, vice president for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said Cleckley was one of the most outstanding individuals in the history of West Virginia.

“As a scholar/professor he was unmatched in knowledge and pedagogy,” Fryson, who is also an attorney, said. “His experience as a trial lawyer was unparalleled in reach, success and depth. As a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice, he accomplished more in a short time on the bench than anyone else in West Virginia history. He was also a nationally known and respected individual in the area of civil rights. Most of all, Justice Franklin Cleckley was a quality man who displayed humility in his excellence.”

Cleckley often represented clients who could not afford to pay, serving as a one-man legal aid society and earning the reputation of being “the poor man’s Perry Mason.”

During the Vietnam War, he served as an officer with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps, earning the reputation of being the most requested lawyer in Vietnam.

“He invested his advocacy skills in representing the disadvantaged and protecting civil rights in criminal defense work,” Bastress said. “He was also the most highly regarded attorney on criminal procedure in the state.”

Cleckley helped revive the Mountain State Bar Association, the oldest minority bar in the United States, founded in 1915, and he established a foundation that gives former convicts educational and employment opportunities.

At WVU, Cleckley founded an eponymous symposium to bring distinguished members of the Civil Rights and African-American communities to the campus. He also gave his name to a  post-graduate fellowship with the  West Virginia Innocence Project at WVU Law. 

He wrote the “Handbook on Evidence for West Virginia Lawyers” and the “Handbook on West Virginia Criminal Procedures.” Both volumes are widely considered the bible for the state’s judges and attorneys.

In 2015, WVU Law presented Cleckley with the Justitia Officium Award for outstanding contributions and service to the legal profession.

“He not only had an enormous effect on West Virginia jurisprudence through his influential books and scholarly court opinions, he was a one-man legal aid society,” said Charles DiSalvo , WVU’s Woodrow A. Potesta Professor of Law. The hallway outside his office was constantly lined by the poor, the abandoned, the down-and-out — all looking for legal help. Frank had time for every one of them.”

Cleckley was born and raised with his 10 brothers and sisters in Huntington. He received his undergraduate education at Anderson College in Indiana, and his Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington in 1965. He earned an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and pursued additional studies at the University of Exeter in England. 

-WVU-

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CONTACT: James Jolly
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WVU College of Law

304.293.7439; james.jolly@mail.wvu.edu  

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