Clifton Corker’s father always told him to always look up.
As on cue, Friday’s swearing-in ceremony for the newest District Judge turned into a bright sunny afternoon.
“At the end of every conversation he had with me, (Dad) told me to keep looking up,” Corker said. “That’s what I had to do going through this confirmation process. It’s funny when I met with Allison Martin with Sen. (Lamar) Alexander’s office, she was very gracious to me. She warned me that as bad as you think it is, it’s going to get a little worse, but stay optimistic.”
Clifton becomes the 26th District Judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee since this country was formed. The first district judge, Judge John McNairy, was appointed by President George Washington in 1796. Corker was nominated for the position by President Donald J. Trump in January and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in July.
Corker didn’t envision becoming a judge as he grew up.
“No one in my family was a lawyer,” Corker said. “My dad did drop me off at the courthouse and I did get to see zealous advocacy, even tempered judgement. I got to see professionalism, civility, and respect for the law. I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to be a part of. In 1993, when I met (wife) Alice, I was clerking for a federal judge in Abingdon, Virginia. I knew then that I wanted to be here.”
Corker opened up his practice in Johnson City, after working for the Terry Law Firm in Morristown, and met his first client in a pickup truck in the parking lot of an area sporting goods store. He met his first client in that parking lot, who had called him while his office was being readied for business.
“I didn’t know a soul in Johnson City. That’s how I started and I’ve never looked back,” he said.
Becoming a district judge, Corker holds special reverence to The Constitution of the United States.
“I’m so blessed to have those values in my heart. It’s important to the system of values in our government. It protects our liberty, it protects our freedom and I have sworn to the best of my ability to perform equal justice under law,” Corker said. “I’m so pleased to work with a group that feels the same way.”
At the investiture ceremony, held outdoors at the James H. Quillen Federal Courthouse, it sounded more like a celebrity roast than a swearing-in.
Olen Haynes, Jr., president of the Federal Bar Association area chapter, said that he has known Corker for years.
“Judge, you’ve come a long way,” Haynes said. “You’ve done it the right way, with grace, great wit and integrity. You really have. Judge Corker will make a wonderful addition to the federal bench and carry on to the legacy of excellence other judges before him have set. He is as well-rounded as they come, having all of the ingredients of an excellent judge.”
Haynes recalled the first case both worked together.
“Chancellor Richard Johnson appointed us in a conservator case involving an elderly lady in a nursing home who was disabled and dying. The daughter had been appointed as conservator. Johnson suspected that the daughter was enriching herself with this lady’s money, and violating her responsibilities. That’s a big no-no, particularly if you were in Chancellor Johnson’s court.”
An inspection of the finances found that the daughter had purchased items, such as a dryer, a washing machine, electronics and Old Milwaukee beer, purchased at Dollar General.
“We learned that it was a bad idea to blame your daily consumption of Old Milwaukee beer on your disabled mother,” Haynes said. “I’d like to think that our efforts in this case paved the way for all of your successes since then, as a lawyer, as a magistrate judge and now as a district judge.
“He is like one of those Old Milwaukee beers. It doesn’t get any better than this,” Haynes said.
Cincinnati lawyer John Pinney, of the American Bar Association, noted that the stakes are high when evaluating candidates for judgeships.
“This is a grand occasion,” Pinney said. “Since 1953, at the urging of President Dwight Eisenhower, the ADA has performed peer reviews for all nominees to the federal bench by a 15-member standing committee. We take this responsibility most seriously because the stakes are high. Every nominee receives a lifetime appointment. I’m most pleased that you’ve got a good one here. Judge Corker is the gold standard.”
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe said that the turnout at the ceremony “speaks volumes.”
“Judge, you should be so proud of this great turnout,” Roe said. “You are of the highest quality and highest character. I want to congratulate you and your family and tell you how proud I am to have you serving with these very honorable and qualified people.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also spoke.
“It have been great to see so many constitutionalist judges walking through my office door and then listening to them as they go through their confirmation hearings,” Blackburn said. “Today we are celebrating a judge who navigated the process beautifully. We are looking for judges in the molds of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Neil Gorsuch, justices who will apply the text of the law and judges committed to holding the agencies accountable and preventing overregulation.”
Blackburn presented Corker with a framed copy of the Congressional Record dated July 18, the date of his confirmation.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, who will be retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2021, said that Corker will serve with distinction.
“Corker will serve our country with distinction,” Alexander said. “Judge Corker has big shoes to fill, those of Ronnie Greer. Judge Corker has built a good relationship with Judge Greer over the years. I’m convinced that Judge Corker will be an asset to the federal bench. He demonstrates all the qualities all of us look for in a judge: good character, good temperament, high intelligence, respect for the law and respect for those who come before him in the courtroom.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Inman, a Morristown native, said that the people of the Eastern District are “extremely lucky” to have Corker.
“Lawyer Corker was always thorough, handy, conscientious, judicious and prepared,” Inman said. “When he was a lawyer in a case, I never dreaded going out into the court. I knew he would make me work hard, but I knew it wouldn’t be an unpleasant experience. He did what a few lawyers find it difficult to do. He was always objective and polite. When I got to know Judge Corker, we got to know each other on a different basis. He has consistently manifested another quality, he takes his job seriously, but not himself.”
Greer, who Corker is replacing, has worked with Corker since 2015 when Corker was appointed a Magistrate Judge.
“It is a testament that this many people have come out today,” Greer said. “I have served with 10 judges who have been appointed to the bench, and practiced law before three others. All of these were of high character, well qualified, fair minded and committed to justice without distinction with regards to litigants’ social standing, wealth, race or any other lines our society finds to divide people.
“He is uniquely qualified to serve by both education and experience,” Greer said. “We in this district are very fortunate to have him. I’m fortunate to have both Corker and Inman as good friends. Corker has all of the qualifications to be a great judge. He thinks clearly, exhibits patience, has calm demeanor on the bench, and administers justice fairly without bias of any kind.”
Of the 26 District Judges who have served the Eastern District, only one judge has been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Edward Terry Sanford was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding and served from 1923 to 1930.