Former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears has earned a spot in the history books. So even though any number of organizations could have brought her to town for the evening, it’s appropriate that it’s the Historical Society who’s sponsoring her talk on Thursday, Sept. 2 at the Lucas Theatre.
Her appointment to the state’s high court by Zell Miller in 1992 broke all kinds of barriers: She was the first woman and the youngest ever Supreme Court Justice in Georgia. When she ascended to Chief Justice in 2005, she became the first female African American to hold that honor.
After she left the bench in 2009, her record included over 1,000 opinions, a successful campaign to end electrocution as the state’s method of execution, and the furthering of two major initiatives – the Supreme Court Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law and the Committee on Civil Justice.
We chatted by phone to talk about her career, making the short list of nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court (twice), and the proliferation of daytime TV judges.
Leaving the State Supreme Court:
“I was appointed by Zell Miller to the court when I was 36 years old. I became chief justice at 50. I was turning 54...My husband is 70. He has a unique perspective on life, and that is that there are phases of life and you do your thing and then move on and leave it to somebody to do something else. I thought that was true, that you don’t just sit and stay until people beg you to leave. Life should be an adventure and you keep making it an adventure. I had done pretty much all I could do at that phase of my life. It was time to embark on another phase. I left many friends and it was a big struggle to leave. It was comfortable. It was what I knew to do. Sometimes when things are so comfortable that you can do them in your sleep, it’s time to move on. Life shouldn’t be that easy.”
Finding out she was a potential US Supreme Court nominee:
“One day you just see your name in the paper or on TV. Eventually you get contacted, but more or less, it’s like that. It’s quite an honor. I was on the short list for the Sotomayor thing too, so it’s been the last two years. This last time, I was in the Middle East country of Oman, and what happened was my Blackberry just started going crazy. I wondered what had happened. Finally I called my mother and she said that they had announced on Good Morning America from undisclosed White House sources that I was on the President’s radar screen.”
The need for age–diverse judges:
“You don’t want everybody sitting on the court from the same generation. Whole generations have whole new perspectives on things and that needs to be taken into account. [Zell] Miller put that in his press release when he announced I had been selected. I reminded him that Thomas Jefferson was 32 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence...When I joined the court, the average age of the men sitting there, because it was all men, was over 60. I was 36. It made for a very interesting dynamic.”
How to be a successful justice:
“You need to create allegiances. The job of a Supreme Court justice is very interesting. You have to have three other people with you to ”win your case“ or get your opinion passed. You have to know how to create alliances and pull people with you and use logic to do that. You can’t ram anything down anyone’s throat. It’s very delicate. I learned a lot about creating consensus. A lot of young people don’t know how to do that, but a lot of old people don’t either. It’s not an age thing. It’s a personality thing.”
The importance of family:
“I don’t feel I could have achieved what I did without the family that I had.. I grew up in a time with a lot of blanket racism, a lot of sexism, and they surrounded me and got me through. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we weren’t poor. I just always felt bad, particularly as a trial court judge, when I saw people who didn’t have that. I’m not a real ultra–conservative who believes marriage is a panacea of all evil and everyone needs to get married and stay married no matter what. I just think that we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Nobody gets married, nobody stays married and nobody cares what impact that has on the children.”
Need for judicial reform:
“I believe we have the best system on earth for getting our disputes resolved amicably or peacefully, but there are problems. There are lots of people who don’t have access to lawyers both in the criminal system and the civil system. There are reforms that need to be made. Not everything needs to be thrown into court. I’m one who believes that most family disputes don’t belong in courts of law, and that we need a separate system to resolve those kinds of disputes. They don’t belong in an adversarial system. None the less. I would give us an A or an A– with reform still needed. I don’t think we need to put as many people in jail as we do for as long as we do.”
The proliferation of daytime TV judges:
“I did write an article about 7 or 8 years ago about how disgusted I was with TV judges. I just think they tend to berate people. I called it slapstick or vaudeville. It’s ridiculous. I think it does really mess up the perception that most people have of judges and the judging process. We’re not there to humiliate people and make them feel bad or to crack jokes. Going to court is a solemn, respectful thing...I know they’re just entertainment, but judges aren’t clowns, and so many of the daytime show guys are clowns.”
An Evening with Leah Ward Sears
When: At 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2
Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free and open to the public
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