Supreme Confidence: Chief Justice Leah Sears 80L defies her critics and refuses to be labeled

It was late summer, 1992, and Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears 80L was in the midst of a hotly contested statewide election campaign. After being appointed by Governor Zell Miller earlier that year—the youngest person and the first woman to serve on the state’s highest court—Sears was fighting the odds to keep her seat. She recalls a particular campaign rally appearance at a Rotary club in a small south Georgia town, where Miller had asked an old attorney friend to “look after” Sears.

Thirty-six years old, black, and female, Sears faced a sea of white, male faces as the lawyer introduced her to the crowd.

“His campaign speech went something like this,” she says. “‘Look, y’all, this is the governor’s choice. I know y’all may not like it, but things are changing, and if we don’t vote for her, there’s gonna be somebody else after her. So you’re just gonna have to suck it up and take it. So here she is. Justice Sears, get on up and talk.’ I was like, whoa . . . so this is my endorsement. ‘Get on up and talk.’ . . . I was a lightning rod, and I always have been.”

In many ways, the scene was emblematic of Sears’ judicial career, as was her response: she got up and talked, with her trademark dignity and confidence. Sears may be a political lightning rod, but she remains firmly grounded in her deep-rooted passion for the law. Branded a raging liberal by her critics, she has resisted one-dimensional labels and pushed Georgians to see beyond her race and gender, refusing to play partisan politics in her approach to the role of courts and judges.

When Sears was sworn in as chief justice of the state Supreme Court last June, becoming the first woman and the second African American to hold the post, many observers were surprised that conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke during her investiture ceremony at the state capitol. But those who know Sears understand that she has always marched to her own beat. Despite political and ideological differences, she has been friends with Thomas, who is from Pinpoint, Georgia, for more than a decade.

“This is a particularly special day, a day when my pride runs deep,” said Thomas. “I know you will prosper and you will do justice. . . . I never thought in my lifetime I would be able to witness a black woman as chief justice of the state of Georgia Supreme Court.”

Sears’ willingness to hold her ground—regardless of the popularity of her position—is one of the qualities that helped her earn the confidence and respect of her colleagues in the judiciary.

“She is, in many ways, an ideal person to be a judge,” says her husband of seven years, Haskell Sears Ward, who is senior vice president of a company that is building an aluminum refinery in West Africa. “She is a person of very strong convictions, and she is not afraid to make decisions without consideration of negative consequences. She is very impartial and will rule on the merits of a case in a way that is not influenced by any political considerations. In the judiciary, you want a person with that kind of temperament.”

A self-described military brat, Sears was born in Heidelberg, Germany, but reared in Savannah, which she considers her hometown. Her father was an Army colonel, her mother an English teacher; they placed a high priority on education, ambition, and strong moral fiber. Sears’ two brothers went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford Law School.

As a kid, Sears says, she was bright, but quirky.

“I was not always captain of this or that,” she says. “I was a little nerd, very smart. I always did things differently, and that did not make me a popular leader.”

Sears recalls a Girl Scout trip where she was supposed to bring a sack lunch. The other little girls brought turkey sandwiches and Oreos; Sears brought a Cornish hen and a portable grill she had fashioned herself out of cans, charcoal, and lighter fluid.

“So I roasted my Cornish hen while they ate their sandwiches,” she says wryly. “The other girls were like, ‘Oh, she’s always doing things like that.”

Later, when she was about fifteen, Sears remembers that she stole away one day on the historic Nancy Hanks train to Atlanta. She stepped off at Brookwood Station and was immediately captivated by the city. “I saw Rich’s department store and that was it,” she says. “I loved the grace and charm. I knew this was going to be my town.”

As Sears grew up in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, her parents sent her to a series of good schools where she typically was one of the few black faces in the classroom. She became aware of discrimination at an early age and was interested in the law as a means of serving fairness and justice, even as a young child.

Sears with her father, mother, and two brothers.

“I always had a burning passion to set things right,” she says. “When I was born in 1955, things were not right in this country, at least not for someone who looked like me. I knew I was smart, I knew I was capable, but life was not going to be fair to me.”

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, where she majored in human development and family studies, Sears joined one of the first classes of minorities who rode the wave of affirmative action and diversity programs into Ivy League and other top-tier schools. There she was exposed to both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, but she found she identified more strongly with the latter. Like many other women of color, she was put off by the objectives of the women’s movement, which struck her as serving mainly white, upper- and middle-class women while ignoring larger social problems such as poverty and racial injustice.

“When the women’s movement began, there was a lot of pushback by black women,” she says. “Many perceived it as a white women’s movement to free themselves of having to do housework, so that minority women would then come into their homes and do the work that white women would not do, so they could be doctors and lawyers. . . . So I knew there was this intersection, that the civil rights movement would get me so far and the women’s rights movement would get me so far and I had to get myself the rest of the way.”

Sears as a college student at Cornell University.

Soon after graduating from Cornell in 1976, Sears married West Point graduate and Georgia native Love Collins. They wanted to return to the South, so Collins got stationed at Fort Benning, and Sears worked for a year as a reporter at the Columbus Ledger, where she says she sharpened her writing skills. She then started looking for the best law school nearby. “There was never any question that I would become a lawyer,” she says.

Sears’ parents were upset that she married so young.

“At twenty-one, I thought, this is the time to get married,” Sears recalls. “How wrong I was.” Although the marriage would last twenty years and yield two children, it ended in divorce in 1995—a particularly harsh blow for Sears, who, as a judge, is an open advocate of marriage.

Too many women have children before marriage, she says, and couples give up on marriage too easily—at great cost to their children.

“I’m not advocating going back to Ozzie and Harriet and the so-called nice 1950s, which were not nice,” she says. “But I think men who are not connected to the mothers of their children have a hard time staying connected to their children. And I think women had it right when they were connected by marriage to the men that fathered their children, because then the fathers stayed closer to the children. So I think we need to encourage that as a strategy to alleviate fatherlessness, which is rampant.”

As a law student at Emory, Sears was part of another first wave. “Women were really flooding the law schools,” she says. “So you could see the beginning of the shift from lawyers being basically white men to a much more diverse bar and judiciary.”

She was involved with the Black Law Students Association, but didn’t have time for the social activism that had shaped her undergraduate experience; she was commuting back and forth and trying to juggle a marriage while striving for the top of her law class.

“I was not one to throw a Frisbee on Friday afternoon,” she says. “I’d be in the library, reading.”

Rebecca Zimmerman 80L met Sears on their second day of law school and the two have been friends ever since. Even now, they meet regularly for lunch or dinner, talk mostly about their children and families, and take turns picking up the check. As a law student, Zimmerman remembers being struck by Sears’ quiet self-confidence and clarity of vision.

“I have only known two people who knew what they wanted to do, even when they were children, and carried it out, and Leah was one of them,” Zimmerman says. “She knew what she wanted, who she was, and her dreams and desires, even then.”

Sears quickly found that her professors seemed taken off guard by her keen intelligence and swift grasp of the law. When she scored an eighty-eight on her first-year property exam—one of the highest scores in the class—the professor took her aside, clearly surprised.

“He told me there was a need by a Negro law firm in town for a Negro lawyer,” Sears recalls. “Now, this wasn’t a bad guy. He was just an older Southern gentleman. And my eighty-eight would entitle me to an interview with a Negro law firm—I mean, he was trying to do me a favor.”

After finishing her law degree, Sears joined the prestigious Atlanta firm Alston and Bird, where she made lasting connections and earned a reputation for good work. But she soon understood that the firm setting was not the ideal backdrop against which her passion for justice would play itself out.

Seeking a role in the judiciary, she moved into a traffic court position. In 1989 Sears was elected the first female judge on the Fulton County Superior Court. Being the first woman, Sears says, was tough, but it had surprising advantages as well: even as spectators lined the back walls just to see a woman try a case, the other judges took Sears under their wing and helped her along.

Sears also discovered one of the most valuable fringe benefits of her Emory law degree, the network of classmates. As her career progressed in Atlanta, she says she has benefited from the support of other Emory lawyers—not just their political endorsements, but their behind-the-scenes ability to counter the radical, far-left image of Sears promoted by her opponents during various political campaigns.

“During my elections, there was always an attempt to paint me as this sort of left-wing, communist, Red Scare kind of person,” she says. “But the lawyers I went to school with and that are now partners in firms could always say, ‘That’s not her, and we know, because we played softball. . . . She was in my study group. That’s not her.’ Emory connections have surrounded and protected me and that’s been a good thing.”

In 2001 Sears was awarded the Emory Medal, the highest honor the University bestows on alumni. She says the award took her by surprise and gave her a welcome opportunity to step back from her day-to-day tasks and reflect on the bigger picture.

“I don’t see myself the way other people see me,” she says. “I see myself as still a little black girl from Savannah, with pigtails, not having achieved that much. Then I sit down and think, wow, it really has been a long haul. I really have gone through quite a bit. . . . And to be reminded of it by your peers and an institution you revere so much is good.”

Just four years after she was elected to Superior Court, Governor Zell Miller appointed Sears to the Supreme Court of Georgia. Her new courtroom in the Judicial Building across from the capitol was lined with portraits of former black-robed justices, gazing sternly down onto the proceedings below; they are, without exception, all white men.

“I think I really upset the dynamics here,” she says. “We had one bathroom in the robing room, and the guys were used to being guys and saying what they wanted to say, and I’m sitting there, a very young woman—the justices were obviously very uncomfortable with me being here.”

But it was in the judicial conference room, where the justices debate cases, that Sears was able to gain real ground on the turf where she is most comfortable: interpreting the law. She remembers clearly when the other justices began to listen to her and take her opinions seriously. Although she has always been cast as liberal, she’s a stickler for the letter of the law. The respect she earned as a justice eventually led to her appointment as chief justice in 2005.

“Chief Justice Sears is very bright, very intelligent, and very knowledgeable in the law,” says Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein, the only other woman on the Supreme Court. “She has a strong sense of justice, and I have found her to be very courageous and to be truly committed to the rule of law in being fair and impartial. She is also a great leader and conciliator.”

At any given time, the Supreme Court is handling hundreds of open cases; it issues some four hundred opinions each year on matters that could not be resolved in the lower-level courts. Sears says she especially enjoys the cases that involve family law.

On a cold morning early this year, the court heard oral arguments in a case involving a will dispute, in which a woman terminally ill with cancer altered her will dramatically just a few weeks before she died. As the justices fired questions at the attorney, the discussion began to range a little too far afield for Sears, who guides the proceedings from the center of the high bench. “We only need to focus on the time between the diagnosis and the execution of the will,” she reminded the defense attorney, fixing him in her direct gaze over the rims of her glasses.

Sears has to be careful not to espouse a particular social or political platform, and she believes part of her job is educating the public about the role of the courts and judges—which is to act not as “liberal” or “conservative” politicians, but neutral arbiters of disputes according to the law. She says she has written opinions she doesn’t personally find fair or compassionate—and she might say so in the opinion—but she is bound to follow the law.

At the same time, Sears readily acknowledges that she is a product of her background. “I have personal views,” she says. “I do understand that the person I am colors how I look at the law. That’s why there are seven judges and not just one. We are all colored by our experiences.”

Although Sears has come a long way from the quirky little girl who roasted a Cornish hen while the rest of her Girl Scout troop ate sandwiches, she still marches to her own beat. A diminutive figure, she favors striking vintage clothes and often wears a thick clutch of pearls; her favorite store is Stefan’s, a vintage shop in the funky Little Five Points neighborhood. Her husband confides that her favorite pastime is shopping. “It’s almost a form of recreation for her,” he says, “and she ropes me in—much to my chagrin.”

Despite some ugly campaigning against her, Sears has tried to rise above the fray. Bernard Taylor, a partner at Alston and Bird, has known Sears since they were associates together at the firm and has helped her during several of her campaigns.

“In every one of those situations, where tactics or issues were raised that were inappropriate, Leah would always take the high road,” Taylor says. “She would say, ‘Even if it causes me to lose this election, I am going to do what’s right here.’ It was an example to all of us assisting her—we knew we were backing the right person.”

Sears’ husband recalls a campaign interview she gave in Augusta with a newspaper editor who had been openly hostile toward Sears in the past. Ward warned her that the encounter would likely be confrontational, but she replied that was no reason not to go; just the opposite.

“He was as aggressive as a person can be and still maintain some civility, and she was as civil a person under aggressive questioning as I have ever seen in public life,” Ward recalls. “She was very reserved and polite in a way I could not imagine anyone being. That characterizes her attitude generally. Under difficult circumstances she is very calm.”

Asked how she became so confident, Sears answers without hesitation: “I’m not. I’m scared all the time. What I decided was, when I felt down or not confident, I would nonetheless move forward in spite of my fears. I would just not let it get the best of me. I would move forward anyway.”

For a woman of such determination, Sears is surprisingly flexible in her plan for the future, which she says is simply to “keep seeing what comes next.”

“I want to continue being relevant,” she says. “I want to count.”



 © 2006 Emory University