Georgia gets distinct, and controversial, voice as chief justice
A defining characteristic of the first black female chief justice in the country is that she hardly hides behind her robe.
Whether swearing in the mayor of a historic black town, writing about her relationship with her teenage daughter, or choosing a female bodyguard, Leah Ward Sears often lays out her private life for public display.
What's more, the woman who last week took the gavel of Georgia's Supreme Court is always ready for opportunities to promote her broader philosophies and support causes, such as encouraging people to get and stay married.
On one level, Ms. Sears's rise to Georgia's highest court is a redeeming tale of post-civil rights America. Yet her career, which has included its share of controversy, has also served as a reminder of the political sensitivities rippling through the nation about judges.
As recently as last year, she faced a tough reelection to the Georgia Supreme Court, opposed by conservatives who thought she was too much of a liberal activist. Now, as head of the court she would have had to vacate, she is keenly aware of the growing intersection of politics and the judiciary - and, characteristically, has some thoughts about it.
"I understand that a judge has a record and that we're not computers that you put things into and you get these plain answers," Sears said in an interview from her chambers in Atlanta last week. "But we need to back off of judges a little bit.... If the judiciary had been a rank political branch, there would never have been Brown v. Board of Education, and I wouldn't be sitting here."
Born as an Army brat in Heidelberg, Germany, Sears circled the globe twice and had seen the Parthenon before her parents settled in Savannah. The muggy Southern port is also where US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up as the son of a crab cannery worker.
She memorized Plessy v. Ferguson by the time she was 6, and by her next birthday she had already determined she wanted to be a judge, inspired by Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to sit on the federal judiciary.
When she came to the US in the early 1960s, she asked her parents, as they drove through Harlem, why blacks and whites lived in different neighborhoods. She still remembers the poignant silence from the front seat.
Though too young to take part in the civil rights movement, Sears certainly fed off its fire. She was driven not just personally, but by a deep desire to involve minorities as participants in the justice system - a dream she plans to put into action as chief justice by chairing a special commission to increase access to the civil justice system by the poor and working classes.
Still, she insists she is not what her opponents accuse her of being: an activist judge. Last fall Sears, a remarried divorcée with two children who describes herself as a "moderate with a progressive streak," became the target of a concerted effort by Republicans to unseat her.
She ran against conservative judge Grant Brantley. For her, it was a painful, sometimes vicious, election, but one that she won handily. The decisive victory was notable in a state like Georgia, which has tilted increasingly conservative in recent years. "They tried to paint Leah as an ultra left-wing liberal, but the paint didn't stick," says state Rep. Tyrone Brooks.
Indeed, some say the GOP realized firsthand the risks of going too aggressively after a member of the judiciary. "There's no doubt that conservative groups can overplay their hand, as liberal groups can," says political scholar David O'Brien, author of a book about the US Supreme Court called "Storm Center."
But others say it's not as simple as the voters reacting to too much politics in judicial elections. In fact, solidarity among blacks probably also played a role.
"To a degree that nobody realized, [the judicial race] really energized black voters," says Tom Baxter, a political columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Sears seems to have had a particular impact on those voters."
Ever cognizant of the subtle messages that judges can send, Sears says that since her election she has gone out of her way to promote her impartiality. She did it last week as only a reporter (which she was for a year in the 1970s in Columbus, Ga.) knows how: by miffing both sides.
Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Sears critic, didn't attend her jubilant inauguration, claiming prior engagements. Neither did some of Atlanta's most stalwart civil rights promoters - normally among her biggest allies. The reason: Sears had a guest who is considered a nemesis to many civil rights proponents: Supreme Court Justice Thomas, a longtime friend.
"The point I'm trying to make is that you can be a friend with somebody that you don't agree with on all counts, that there is a need for civil discourse in this country, that we need to stop labeling people that we don't agree with as evil, simply because we do not agree with them," she says.
Sears has long been a subject of controversy. She faced vigorous opposition in all three statewide judicial elections she ran in. She admits that the Deep South "has been hard on me from time to time," but confesses to feeling "emotional" when she returns from a plane trip to see the gold dome of the capitol building in Atlanta shimmering in the Dixie sun.
Her route through the judiciary has included many firsts. Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young appointed her to her first judgeship, on a local traffic court, in 1982. She was 27. She later won an election to become the state's first black female superior court judge. In 1982, Zell Miller, then governor, made her the first woman on the Georgia Supreme Court. She took over as chief justice based on her seniority.
"I felt like God's hand was on my shoulder each little milestone," she says. "You don't know where you're headed, you don't know what the point is, and it seems so painful until you know that it was all in preparation for this."
Sears has never lacked interest in the law. While still in grade school, she ordered catalogs from elite law schools. Her daughter, Brennan Sears-Collins, is named after the late US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.
Last Tuesday, while getting her robes ready for her swearing-in, the realization of her latest achievement finally hit her. "It's a miracle," she whispered over and over to a friend who had called her to pray.