Judge Wielded A Velvet Gavel Harold Clarke Retiring After Career Noted For Its Judicious Restraint
Criminals leaving Harold Clarke’s courtroom almost always say, “Thank you, Your Honor.”
Clarke is so polite and mannerly, so courteous and respectful, even the longest prison sentence seems exceedingly fair.
For 21 years, he’s been the man with the velvet hammer - a folksy jurist with snow-white hair and blue-collar values who softens gritty hearings and trials with anecdotes about his seven grandchildren.
Clarke’s court is “a comfortable place,” according to defense attorney Dick Cease.
“He’s just a first-class gentleman in every dealing,” Cease says.
At the end of this week, the 67-year-old Clarke will retire from Spokane County Superior Court, saying it’s finally time to slow down.
He’ll be missed by his black-robed colleagues, many of whom turn to him for leadership and advice, baring their deepest personal secrets.
Called “the most tactful man alive” by his staff, Clarke would never betray a confidence.
Nor would he lose his cool in court. Only those who know him extremely well can detect the slight quaver in his voice that belies his calm demeanor.
“If he was a little tense, other judges would have been yelling and screaming and throwing things,” says attorney Carole Hemingway, a former Clarke bailiff.
More often than not, the only loud noise coming from Clarke’s chambers is raucous laughter. He’s a big fan of syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry.
There have been so many big cases over the years, from murder to malpractice, Clarke scarcely can dredge up the names and outcomes. It all tends to blur together. He now is sending to prison the grandchildren of people he had locked up 20 years ago.
Never, though, could he be accused of having been hardened by the tragic parade. He still talks like Jimmy Stewart, using words like “doggone.” His full name is Harold Dempster Clarke Jr., but he prefers to be called “Pete,” a silly childhood nickname that stuck.
In an obscenity case in the late ‘70s, he and a jury had to sit through screenings of four hard-core sex films. Clarke covered his face with his hands and peeked through his fingers.
Early this year, he presided over a wacky case in which former motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel sued the Ridpath Hotel over a one-sided fight in his room, claiming invasion of privacy.
Knievel won a small sum and afterward paid a visit to the judge.
“I’ve never been treated fair in a court of law until now,” the stuntman said.
Clarke was delighted.
Modest to a fault, Eastern Washington’s senior trial judge keeps counting himself fortunate.
“How can you beat this job?” he asks. “People get up when you come in the room. They call you ‘Your Honor.’ And every day, it’s so fascinating - like a drama unfolding in your courtroom.”
Clarke’s departure signals the beginning of a new era in Superior Court. Expected to follow his lead early next year is Judge Marcus Kelly. There also is talk of creating an 11th judicial position within a year or so.
But Clarke has no intention of fading into the soft folds of retirement. He will serve part time as a pro tem judge and mediator, fulfilling a dream of working alongside his son, Harold D. Clarke III, a Spokane lawyer.
Born in Nebraska, the elder Clarke moved here when he was 4. His father, a mechanic with a ninth-grade education, urged him to go to law school because he admired attorneys.
Clarke followed his father’s advice. Along the way, he married his Lewis and Clark High School sweetheart.
Romance bloomed while he was working as a delivery boy for a South Hill grocery store. He’d race through his route, making Ruth’s home a lingering final stop. They were married in 1949 and have raised three children.
He had just started attending Gonzaga University Law School and was working as a Teamster hauling freight for a trucking company when the Army called. He wound up spending the Korean War as a military policeman patrolling an air base in the Philippines.
After graduating from law school in 1957, Clarke went into private practice in Spokane, becoming a partner at Hamblen, Gilbert & Brooke. When a judicial vacancy opened, politically connected senior partners dropped his name.
Clarke said he was stunned when Gov. Dan Evans appointed him to the bench in May 1974.
“I hadn’t even thought about being a judge,” he said. “I was so apolitical.”
He always has been admired for his tireless devotion to the job, but in the beginning, he was admittedly soft on women - the criminal kind.
While men would spend time behind bars, women found guilty of the same offenses would be sent on a tour of the county jail.
“He was the biggest cream puff around,” quips bailiff Chuck Ackerman, who spent 18 years as the judge’s clerk.
Clarke’s experience as a member of the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission about 15 years ago changed all that. He became convinced of the need for tough, consistent punishment, especially in child-abuse cases.
His courtroom also evolved, becoming the first in the county to install a video court-reporting system in 1988.
But there is nothing remotely high-tech in the judge’s chambers. He doesn’t know the first thing about computers.
Family members joke about his boundless energy. Five days a week, he rises early to run a few miles around his northwest Spokane neighborhood with Rocky, his golden retriever.
“He doesn’t leave the bench with burnout,” his son says. “He could have gone another five years.”
Not once in 21 years did Clarke consider running for a seat on the state Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.
Too much drudgery, not enough human contact.
“I’d miss the people too much,” he said. “Especially the lawyers. I still think it’s a good profession. It’s where people go when they have problems.”
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