March 23, 2010 in City

Defense attorney Clark fights for clients, battles cancer

By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photo

John Clark argues a traffic case in the Spokane Courthouse Annex late last week.
(Full-size photo)

When trouble has found many Inland Northwest residents, there’s been a helpful firebrand of a local attorney who finds them.

And many of those clients never received a bill from a man who considered it an honor to represent them, 57-year-old John R. Clark.

“There was once a comment made by Gandhi,” said Robert Crary, Clark’s partner of 30 years, “that nobody is beyond redemption. It’s the way (Clark) looks at the world.”

That passion for standing up for Spokane’s working-class Joes has earned Clark the 2010 Smithmoore P. Myers Professionalism Award, which is presented annually by the Spokane County Bar Association.

The award, named after Myers, a former U.S. magistrate judge and dean of the Gonzaga University School of Law, is expected to be presented Wednesday at a ceremony at the Davenport Hotel.

But the accolade comes at a time when Clark faces a challenge that has nothing to do with making sure police or prosecutors do their jobs: Clark doesn’t know how many days he has left to live.

Diagnosed in 2008 with cancer of the appendix, the disease has spread to his bones.

Yet he doesn’t let his illness keep him from his passion. “Every day is a gift,” Clark said.

Penny Youde, the executive director of the Spokane County Bar Association, said Clark’s illness did not play into the decision or discussions about who should receive the Myers award.

“He got the award because he deserved it,” Youde said. “I’m just hoping a miracle happens and 12 years from now, John will be sitting across from me somewhere. He has a great attitude. If anybody can beat it, I think John can.”

When Spokane police arrested two dozen youths on July 4, 2007, in Riverfront Park, Clark not only offered free legal help but also found other attorneys willing to work with the young people for free to get nearly all the charges dismissed.

Last June, Clark likewise responded when Cheney police arrested 35 youths as they arrived at a party that had been advertised on Facebook.

“The minute he heard about it, he hustled out to the arraignment and offered to represent anyone who wanted an attorney for free,” said Clark’s paralegal, Jan Lee. Again, Clark got charges dismissed for nearly all of the youths.

“When John gets going he’s like a mini-tornado,” Lee said.

“I’m sure other attorneys will dispute this, but he knows absolutely everything about the law. I adore working for him.”

His health has forced the former race car driver to decide what to do with the time he has left. Spurning any suggestions about sandy beaches or even holing up in his cabin near Northport, Clark has kept a busy schedule with his first love, the law, said his wife, Superior Court Judge Ellen Kalama Clark.

“He likes to see himself as protecting the underdog,” she said. “We would get calls at 2 or 3 in the morning from someone about a DUI or ‘cops are at my door.’ A lot of attorneys would say, ‘Call me later.’ But he would jump out of bed.

“He loves the challenge of that, the adrenaline. It drove me crazy for a while, but I got used to it.”

She wasn’t the only one. When the Clarks’ son, Steven, was 5, someone in trouble called for John, who was away at the time.

“Steven says, ‘Just tell them to tell the police that I’ve done nothing wrong, I’ve got nothing to hide and to call my lawyer,’ ” Ellen Clark said. “He knew the drill at 5. To this day, my son tells his friends to say that.”

Whenever John Clark represents the friends of his son or daughter, Allison, he charges them a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

“He has a strong belief that people are generally good and they deserve a second chance, or a third, or fourth …” Ellen Clark said. “Sometimes it gets frustrating in my job. I have people come before me who have done bad things and they deserve to be punished. John mostly thinks the punishment is too much. So, we have some interesting discussions.”

John Clark also thinks everybody should go to law school. In fact, it was his challenge that convinced Ellen Clark to follow him to Gonzaga.

“It’s just a tremendous honor to be authorized by the government to represent another person in a dispute, whether it’s with an insurance company or with a neighbor over a fence,” John Clark said. “It is just a tremendous honor to do that. Every day, I’m just amazed about how exciting this job can be.”

Clark joined with Crary and Jim Domanico right out of law school; they’ve been together 30 years.

“We worked like brothers, played like brothers and at times we fought like brothers,” Crary said.

Clark’s propensity to give offenders multiple chances or to provide free legal help to someone he encounters in Spokane County District Court has sometimes caused concern for the partners, Crary said.

“Why are you representing this bum again? Yet all of the sudden, I could cite you numerous cases where that person would come back … who had transformed himself,” Crary said. “I can’t help but think that John had some play in that because he didn’t give up on them.

“It’s a love of his fellow man. It’s love for this profession because this profession gave him the ability to do what he loves to do.”

That love perhaps received its toughest test in January 2009 when Clark found himself in a Spokane Valley drug store with a knife to his throat. The suspect, 25-year-old Michael A. Miller, threatened to harm Clark if the pharmacist didn’t hand over OxyContin and methadone.

Miller was later caught and Clark went to Miller’s sentencing to ask the judge for leniency. He then wished the man good luck as a deputy handcuffed Miller and took him to jail.

“There is a spot for him back in the community,” Clark said of Miller in August 2009. “I know he is going to get through this.”

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