Individuals come and go, but court carries on.
At least, that’s what Spokane County Judge Harold Clarke III believed as he prepared for his last day of work Friday.
His colleagues, however, say Clarke’s selfless leadership, strong work ethic and sense of humor have been invaluable as the court navigated ever-changing law and technology.
Clarke, 68, retired Friday after nearly two decades on the bench.
He was elected to Spokane County Superior Court in 2004 after serving as a district court judge for six years. Clarke followed in the footsteps of his father, former Judge Harold Clarke, taking to the bench shortly after the elder Clarke retired.
He passed the bar in 1980 after attending Gonzaga Law school. He spent 18 years in private practice, largely handling civil litigation.
Clarke always focused on what was best for the court, said Judge John Cooney. During his three years as presiding judge from 2019 through 2021, Clarke focused on “the good of the court, not on what was best for him,” Cooney wrote in an email.
His work ethic was second to none, Cooney added.
“He never turned down a request for help or avoided litigation that was undesirable,” Cooney said.
Clarke continued to hear cases through Friday and plans to renew his bar license so he can serve as a Judge Pro Tempore and finish presiding over some of his tougher cases.
“He has always been so accessible and answered questions with regard to the law,” said Judge Julie McKay, current presiding judge. “I am going to miss his judgment, his work ethic and his sense of humor in applying all of that to what we do on a regular basis.”
Clarke helped the court navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic as presiding judge and fought for increased resources as case loads grew.
“We’re constantly being asked to do more,” Clarke said recently.
There are “ever-changing laws and the increased workload that’s being placed on us, appropriately so by the legislature and appellate courts,” he said.
The Spokane County Superior Court has been approved for a 13th judicial seat by the Legislature since the 1990s, but due to space and financial concerns of the County Commissioners, the seat has never been filled.
Clarke continued to advocate for additional resources, including more judges, that would help the system run more smoothly.
“That’s been a significant frustration for me, at least the last three or four years, is the lack of resources to this court,” he said.
Recently, he heard a 4-year-old divorce case delayed in part due to the pandemic, but largely due to lack of court time.
“That’s not right for those parties, he said.
“Is the response always just going to be, well, just keep doing more with the same? It can’t last forever,” Clarke said. “Our job is to supply or to provide justice in a timely fashion. And you can’t do that when you’re under-resourced, because you’re always just pinging from one kind of crisis to the next.”
In his advocacy to make the system better, Clarke makes clear his central philosophy: Being a judge isn’t about the individual, but the system as a whole.
With two judicial officers already appointed to the court this year, in Clarke’s replacement, Marla Polin, and Judge Jacquelyn High-Edwards, plus another vacancy expected after Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren was nominated to served as a U.S. District Court Judge, Clarke worries about the loss of institutional knowledge and experience.
He encourages the new judges to ask questions, be present and prepared, and actively listen.
“Be kind to yourself; you can only handle the matter that’s in front of you right now,” Clarke advised. “Be humble in your approach to the cases.”
The turnover is also part of the beauty of the courts, Clarke said. He left the building Friday afternoon; on Monday morning, Polin took over.
“The court doesn’t care about you personally,” he said. “I just had to be internally satisfied that I did my job right.”
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