Skip to main content

WVU Law mourns the passing of Frank Cleckley

Legal giant was first African-American to serve on the West Virginia Supreme Court and the first African-American professor at WVU Law.

UPDATE: WVU will host a public memorial for Justice Franklin D. Cleckley on Sunday, September 24 at 2 p.m. in the Lyell B. Clay Concert Theatre at the Creative Arts Center.

WVU Law professor Franklin D. Cleckley

MORGANTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA — Justice Franklin D. Cleckley, the Arthur B. Hodges Professor of Law Emeritus, passed away in Morgantown on August 14, 2017.

“Frank was a giant in legal education and in law practice,” said Gregory W. Bowman, dean of the College of the Law. “He had one of the keenest intellects I have ever known, and he was admired and loved as a friend and colleague across the state and the country. He will be missed. Please keep his family in your thoughts.”

Cleckley taught at WVU Law from 1969 to 2013,  mentoring future judges, lawyers, state and national legislators, educators, and business and community leaders for more than four decades.

He was the first African-American faculty member at WVU Law, and the first full time African-American professor at WVU.

Cleckley was also the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. He served from 1994 to 1996 and authored over 100 majority opinions.

He wrote the “Handbook on Evidence for West Virginia Lawyers” and the “Handbook on West Virginia Criminal Procedures.” Both volumes are widely considered the bible for the state’s judges and attorneys.

As a practicing attorney, Cleckley successfully argued important anti-discrimination cases as a Civil Right lawyer that helped integrate West Virginia and bring social justice to the state.

He often represented clients who could not afford to pay, serving as a one-man legal aid society and earning the reputation of being “the poor man’s Perry Mason.”

During the Vietnam War, Cleckley served as an officer in the law specialist program of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, earning the reputation of being the most requested lawyer, by defendants, in Vietnam. 

Cleckley was born and raised with his 10 brothers and sisters in Huntington, West Virginia. He received his undergraduate education at Anderson College in Indiana, and his Juris Doctor degree from Indiana University School of Law at Bloomington in 1965. He earned an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and pursued additional studies at the University of Exeter in England.

Cleckley helped revive the Mountain State Bar Association, the oldest minority bar in the United States, founded in 1915, and he established a foundation that gives former convicts educational and employment opportunities.

At WVU, Cleckley founded an eponymous symposium to bring distinguished members of the Civil Rights and African-American communities to the campus. He also gave his name to a post-graduate fellowship with the West Virginia Innocence Project at WVU Law.

In 2015, WVU Law presented Cleckley with the Justitia Officium Award for outstanding contributions and service to the legal profession.

"Today the legal community mourns over the loss of one of its towering figures," said long-time Cleckly colleague Charles DiSalvo, the Woodrow A. Potesta Professor of Law. 

"Frank Cleckley’s extraordinary passion for justice, harnessed to his mastery of the law, made him a one-of-kind figure in West Virginia. He not only had an enormous effect on West Virginia jurisprudence through his influential books and scholarly court opinions, he was a one-man legal aid society. The hallway outside his office was constantly lined by the poor, the abandoned, the down-and-out — all looking for legal help. Frank had time for every one of them."


Revised 8/23/17 to correct a previous version that stated Cleckley served in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps. The Corps was not established until late 1967, after Cleckley's service. He was the first African-American officer in the U.S. Navy's law specialist program, according to former colleague and classmate Bob McLeran of Satellite Beach, Florida.

WVU LAW Facebook WVU LAW Twitter WVU LAW Instagram WVU LAW LinkedIn WVU LAW Youtube Channel