Supreme Court Crowns New Chief Justice

Tennessee Supreme Court justices typically spend their time making serious decisions, but members spent Wednesday morning joking about magic wands and tiaras.

The state’s most powerful judicial body swore in Justice Cornelia Clark as Chief Justice, making her the second woman to hold that Supreme Court position in the state’s history.

“Today, I have the unique honor of becoming a chief spokesman, both ceremonial and otherwise, for this large, diverse and talented group of professionals that occupy this justice system family,” said Clark, 59. “Though we will have occasions in the future where we’re going to have to fuss over a problem, we’ll all stand together in the world to face the challenges ahead.”

The Franklin native is taking over for Chief Justice Janice Holder who stepped down from the post after reaching the end of her two-year term limit.

Although Holder passed the gavel to Clark, she said she’d refuse to give up her “wand.”

Clark had given her the wand in 2008 when she was being sworn in as the chief justice. Since then, Holder says she’s contemplated using it to make her job easier.

“Now I’ve got to admit there are a couple of times when I was writing opinions where I was tempted to use the wand to make the conditions go away. I restrained myself and did not use my wand and I thought better of it and I resolved those issues appropriately,” Holder told the chuckling audience. “After that experience, I decided Chief Justice Clark would not need my wand.”

She then handed Clark two gifts. One was a tiara, which she considered “an essential part of any female chief justice’s wardrobe.” The other was a pink sash with the word “chief” embroidered on it, which — she pointed out — matches the tiara.

Justice Sharon Lee, the third of three women on the five-member board, applauded Clark not only for her appointment, but for creating a succession of female leaders.

“You know, historically, the tradition of a woman severing as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court was a little slow in our state. In fact, it took 173 years for that to begin,” she said. “I hope it’s one of those new inventions that’s here to stay.”

Clarke was sworn in as Chief Justice before a crowd of some 300 people at the Williamson County Courthouse, the very building where she had made her first appearance as a trial judge.

Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Clark to the high court in 2005. She was then elected to serve out an eight-year term in 2006.

The five member body, which also includes Justices William Koch, Jr., and Gary Wade, chooses who will serve out the next two years as the chief justice.

“For the past twenty-plus years Justice Clark has served the judiciary, she had demonstrated the kind of generosity and her leadership and devotion to the state of Tennessee,” said Wade. “And so today, it is entirely appropriate that she accept now the leadership of the Tennessee Supreme Court.”

Although representatives from the legal community did not bring gifts like wands or tiaras to the ceremony, they commended Clark for her discipline, leadership, and ability to get things done.

“We’ve been lucky to have years of strong chief justices who have done us good in the eyes of the citizens and the judiciary and the legislature,” said Presiding Judge Joseph M. Tipton, Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. “I look forward to and with confidence to Justice Clark leading with the same strength.”