University of Denver

IAALS Advances Justice with Tom Clarke, PhD

Executive Director

IAALS simply would not be what it is without the support of our partners and friends. They are essential to our efforts and hail from a wide range of backgrounds, viewpoints, and sectors. Every month, IAALS will shine the spotlight on one such person and take you behind the scenes for a lighthearted glimpse into those upon whose guidance and support we rely. Together we are advancing justice.

Thomas Clarke, Vice President of Research & Technology, National Center for State Courts

Tom Clarke is a gift. He is brilliant, collaborative, good-natured, and visionary. So many of the good ideas that are bubbling through the court systems in the United States today can be traced back to Tom. I cannot even remember when I first met him, but what I do know is that we clicked almost immediately. We recognized fellow travelers in one another. We are both committed to building the best possible court system—to serve users, to support our democracy, and to protect justice. At every step, I never doubt Tom’s intentions and his courage. And, at every step, I know that what Tom is saying is well thought-out, grounded in data to the extent data is available, and practical.  

His reputation around the country is impeccable. I have never heard anyone question his intellectual rigor or his thoroughness. If Tom thinks something should work, it probably will. He also has a turn of phrase that animates our national court-reform discussions. He coined “if we pave a cow path, it will still be a cow path” to describe the conclusion that we must all first simplify a process before we overlay it with technology. He first analogized the complex caseload of our courts to the New Yorker magazine cover that shows the hubs of New York, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with fly over country in between; we used to concentrate primarily on the complex cases, whereas the great bulk of the caseload is in fact smaller cases. Tom wrote about the portal, before the portal was on the radar screen. And, he started talking about a system driven by users, where the users make the decisions (about case pathways and the like). At the time, that thought was revolutionary.

So, as a community of court geeks, court reformers, and court lovers, we owe a great deal to Tom Clarke. And as one individual, I am grateful for his friendship, support, and incredible vision.

Earlier this month, we caught up with Tom to bring you our latest Partner Profile.

How long and in what ways have you been involved with IAALS? It was almost totally by accident that I got involved with IAALS, initially. IAALS was partnering with the National Center on the big civil reform project about five years ago and I wasn’t on the National Center’s team working on the project at the time but because of my area of expertise, I volunteered. That led to a number of other collaborations, most recently the Court Compass project. We’ve worked together a lot. It’s been fun!

What professional achievement are you most proud of? I am most proud of an event I did in May of this year. We put together an innovation summit for ten states from which many of the states produced action plans to implement significant innovations in their court systems. This was really the climax of about ten years of work by myself and the Center on helping courts innovate successfully to meet the unprecedented challenges they face right now. The fact that people were so committed to creative solutions and building a plan that will solve problems in their courts, it was amazing and thrilling. You don’t get very many opportunities in a career to be part of that. 

What is the trait that you most admire in others? I like people who are passionate about what they do. There are a lot of other things that are important, but if they are not passionate about what they do, it doesn’t really matter.  

What do you consider to be the most underrated virtue? In our world, it’s risk-taking.

What is your greatest extravagance? My wife and I are outdoor sports nuts. That’s one of the many reasons we live in Utah. But, I travel for work 80-90% of the time. One of our favorite things to do is kayak—not whitewater, but sea kayak. She wanted to be able to kayak while I was away. She’s a small person and cannot lift something too heavy or bulky so we bought a special lightweight kayak so she can lift onto the car to take it to a body of water. That’s pretty over-the-top for us! 

What historical figure do you most identify with? I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about identifying with a historical figure but I certainly do admire these two men. As a PhD researcher, Einstein and Feynman, because in about a two year period they both hit their stride early in their careers, publishing brief papers that completely revolutionized their fields. I have great respect for people who can distill complex ideas down to their essence, share them, and, in the process, change the world. It’s a rare trait. 

If you could do anything for one year, what would you do? I would go around the world climbing mountains.