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The Other Side of the Bench

During my eight year tenure working for Judge Patricia Ann Clark, I was able to observe, enjoy and be challenged by her Honor from the other side of the bench. In chambers, consistent with the keen mind she displayed on the bench, she asked critical and probing questions about the cases before her and the law. It was my experience, shared by all of her law clerks, that no matter how well you thought you knew or analyzed issues for Judge Clark, she would always think of a pertinent question that you had not considered. Before and during trials or contested proceedings, she would eat, drink and sleep the matter in front of her. It was standard that she would call at night to discuss the case and the law as she processed the case before her. She would be greatly frustrated by positions that parties took that were not firmly based and would struggle to understand if there wasn't something that she was missing, because "X attorney would not make that argument on these facts under the current law." She was a slave to the law and would agonize over decisions that she did not believe in her heart were necessarily equitable, but would follow the law, even if it compelled a different result (only after she was certain that all relevant authority had been examined, in case it would be possible to rule differently). Her ability to get to the heart of the matter in the courtroom was based not just upon her sharp intellect and perception, but also because she had seriously pondered the issues beforehand, on the other side of the bench.

Because of Judge Clark's private nature and due to professional and judicial codes that limit interaction with practitioners, few saw the personal side of her. She was incredibly generous with her staff and she suffered every blow and rejoiced in every success experienced by them and their family. Once, the Judge left a message for me to receive upon my arrival to work after I checked on a niece who was having a serious operation, the note warned, "If you are in the office when I arrive, and not back at the hospital, YOU'RE FIRED!" There also was the time that she found out my father was hospitalized and she called every hospital in Salt Lake City to find me so that she could tell me not to come back to Colorado until he became more stable. In fact, thanks to Judge Clark, who was more understanding and accommodating than any employer would ever be expected to be, I was able to spend much time in Utah during the last two years of my father's life. Not just me, but all of her staff were often overwhelmed by the compassion, empathy and concern that she showed us.

Another side of Judge Clark, was viewed by all of her law clerks were at law clerk gatherings where she encouraged conversation, friendship, mentoring and fun. For a number of years, in addition to luncheons, we had a ski day. Skiing with Judge Clark was one of the perks of working with her. Every clerk has at least one Judge Clark ski story, and during those ski days many would be recounted. Although she was an excellent and graceful skier, Judge Clark would fall on rare occasion, but she turned every tumble into a humorous lesson. A favorite story that she would tell, tongue-in-cheek when talking about being able to depend on her clerks, was from the time when she had a "yard sale" fall and as she was assuring the ski patrol that her friend was behind her and would assist her, I skied right past her, without stopping. Through those fun times together, when we came to know the other law clerks and Judge Clark better off of the bench and on the slopes.

I learned a great lesson from Judge Clark on the other side of the bench. It was that when you realize a mistake was made or a problem was created by anyone on your team, including yourself, do not seek to blame; identify the mistake or problem; do not rationalize how it happened, understand how it happened; and develop and implement a plan to prevent it from happening again. That advice served me well working with her, and has been invaluable in client, case and personnel issues faced since then.

There is so much that can be said about the twenty-six years that her Honor served on the bench. She issued key opinions in many areas of the law, and ruled with a predictability that will be missed. That may have been the only side of Judge Clark that most knew. Perhaps now that she is unfettered by the judicial robes that limited contact, others will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with her off of the bench or to thank her for her years of service on the bench.


Kelly Sweeney served as a Law Clerk for Judge Clark from 1988-1990 and 1991-1997. She is currently a Trial Attorney for the Office of the United States Trustee in Denver, CO.