Dr. James Clements, past president of the AAMR, died on January 26, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 71.

Dr. Clements' body of work is significantly responsible for the revolution in the care and support of people with mental retardation all across this country. In the 1970s and 1980s, he served as an expert witness in major class action lawsuits seeking reforms of institutions and the creation of community service programs in numerous states. Arthur Peabody, the former head of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act unit in the United States Department of Justice, said:

He [Dr. Clements] worked tirelessly as an expert in support of the Department of Justice's program to foster the development of such rights. He participated in all the early “right to treatment” cases, Wyatt v. Stickney, Gary W. v. Louisiana, Halderman v. Pennhurst, Horacek v. Exon, United States v. Montana, and United States v. Solomon, to name a few. As an expert witness, he made invaluable contribution to these cases and to the Department's program. He spent countless days touring these institutions and evaluating the deficient conditions in terms all could understand. He did not mince words.

In addition to his service as an expert witness, one of Dr. Clements' more notable positions was as chairman of the Willowbrook Review Panel, which was responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Willowbrook Consent Decree in New York. Horace Mann, Distinguished Service Professor at Buffalo State College, noted, “in his role as Chairman of the Willowbrook Review Panel, he prevented what might have been a ‘flash in the pan’ outrage, into a positive, humane and concrete change in the lives of these individuals who were finally placed in mainstream, community faculties.”

Dr. Clements led the 7-member panel through a course of oversight and interpretation of the Willowbrook Consent Decree that, in the opinion of many, extended the original requirements of the decree in many significant ways. Unsurprisingly, the Willowbrook Review Panel developed an often tense relationship with the State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities because its oversight activities continually found the state's efforts wanting and, on more than one occasion, led to attempts to have state officials held in contempt. Despite the adversarial nature of these proceedings, however, Dr. Clements was able to maintain cordial professional relationships of respect with many of the defendants' officials. Elin Howe, the former New York State Commissioner of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, recalls meeting Dr. Clements when she was the 30-year-old Director of Willowbrook State School.

I so clearly remember Jim sitting at the head of the table and always looking very dapper. He spoke quietly but there was no mistaking where he stood on issues. While I brought all my [negative] opinions of plaintiffs into these meetings, in retrospect, I can truthfully say that I never remember him being other than courteous and attentive when I presented. While he may have had issues with the State of New York, and I should add, they with him, he never ground those axes with me and in hindsight, treated me very fairly. As I grew as a professional, I came to realize that just because you bear the title of either plaintiff or a defendant does not necessarily mean you do not share the same ultimate goal, that of making life better for individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. While your means of getting there may be very different, your purpose can indeed be very much the same. Thinking of him many years later, I do believe that Jim Clements shared more of a common purpose with us than many of us recognized at the time.

Rud Turnbull remembers Dr. Clements' service on the Board of Trustees of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law:

He was generous with his time and money, judicious in his thoughtfulness about the issues, and wise in his judgments about them. Jim was—above all—courageous and gentlemanly; courageous in attacking the very morés and laws that established the institutions over which he himself presided, and gentlemanly in his unfailing consideration of others.

I must confess that when I first met Dr. Clements, I found his Southern courtliness, his propensity for professorial lecturing, and his seeming condescension towards less informed and less enlightened people, to be irritating. The prism through which I saw all this was as a relatively uninformed, naive, young lawyer, who had just been assigned the task of protecting the legal interests of the governor of New York. Dr. Clements, as chair of the Willowbrook Review Panel, seemed to be incessantly critical of the state's actions, notwithstanding the almost heroic commitments being made by Governor Hugh Carey in an environment of severe fiscal distress, exemplified by the looming bankruptcy of New York City.

With time and experience, I came to understand Dr. Clements' passion and impatience. By then, I had visited numerous institutions in New York and elsewhere, whose conditions appalled me, whose environments assailed every sense, whose very existence affronted any notion of civilization. Understanding their daily unrelenting effect upon the helpless residents quickly dispelled any argument for patience, for measured actions. Instead, I came to see why so many advocates viewed their task as akin to evacuating a burning building.

Dr. Clements and I began to enjoy a professional and respectful relationship during these years and later, when I joined the Willowbrook Review Panel. But it was not until more than 15 years later that I got to see another, more personal side of the man. As chance would have it, in 1996, Jim Clements and I were both part of a human rights fact-finding mission to Armenia organized by Mental Disability Rights International. We visited several long-term institutions and orphanages in three cities and spent long days and evenings thinking about strategies to reform institutions in this country, which suffered more than its share of disasters. During our visit, the country was in the midst of an armed conflict with Azerbaijan and victimized by an embargo, which created shortages of fuel. Even the Eternal Flame at the Armenian Holocaust Museum was doused to conserve fuel. Our local host was an Armenian psychiatrist who also served as the head of the Emergency Services for the city of Yeravan. Frequently, he would absent himself from our tours to go and make arrangements for the delivery of gasoline from mysterious sources, to keep the ambulances in the city operating. Upon hearing of the difficulties of the ambulance service in responding to emergency calls, Dr. Clements reached into his pocket and peeled off five $100 bills, which he pressed into the hands of our host, to help the cause.

One evening, we visited a Children's Medical Center, where the doctors outlined their plans to develop a new residential institution for children with developmental disabilities, similar to facilities they had visited in the United States. Dr. Clements immediately swung into the role of professor and proceeded to deliver a lecture on child development, patiently explaining the irretrievable developmental damage to young children who are deprived of the opportunity to bond with nurturing adults. He went on to outline persuasively several alternative courses of action to support children with developmental disabilities and their families, without severing their relationships.

As Horace Mann put it, Jim Clements' commitment to people with developmental disabilities was no “flash in the pan,” but an enduring commitment that improved the lives and opportunities of thousands people both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. He did his advocacy work not only on the witness stand, in legislative hearings, in public speaking and writing, but in the quiet forgotten corners of the world where few were there to witness his unwavering passion. What a remarkable life!

Author notes

Author:Clarence J. Sundram, JD, Special Master, United States District Court