Justice Sears Style
February 11, 1999
By David Goldman
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah J. Sears, who addresses the Atlanta Executive
Network next week, talks about being different and standing tall .
"I do not like discrimination against anybody based on characteristics that they
were born with and cant do anything about," Leah J. Sears said last week,
speaking deliberately, but without hesitation. "Its so fundamentally
un-American. I feel it in every cell of my body. And that is the theme of my life."
In her 1998 reelection campaign, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Sears was praised by the
Georgia Equality Project as "a tremendous friend of our community" and blasted
by conservative opponent George Weaver as a "judicial extremist" who "would
require the state to license same-sex marriage." When asked how she came by the
convictions that elicit such strong reactions, she responded with a personal answer that
will seem strikingly familiar to gay and lesbian people.
"I had a really hard time growing up," she said. "I was a black middle-
class woman at a time when there wasnt a really big middle class. I grew up
traveling around a lot, overseas, not really in the black community.
"Because of that, I got a lot of hits for being different. It took me a long time
to realize that it was okay to be different its good to be different.
Ill never blend in. I got to the point where I stopped trying to straighten my hair.
I stopped trying to wear blue suits. Now I wear all red suits. I be who I am.
"Everybody, to live the life that God wants them to live, should somehow find out
who they are, what lights them up, and be it."
During her 43 years, Sears has experienced enough "firsts" to acquaint her
well with the rewards and challenges of being different. As a child, she attended formerly
all-white public schools, where she remembers "they spat on me and called me nigger
At age 32, she became the youngest person and the first African-American woman to serve
as a Georgia Superior Court judge. When Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to the Georgia
Supreme Court in 1992, she was the youngest person and the first woman elevated to the
states high court.
Sears, who will be the featured speaker at the February meeting of the Atlanta
Executive Network, a gay business networking group, next Thursday, says she is aware that
she is on new ground and she clearly enjoys it.
"Why should I join the Supreme Court and wear little blue suits and walk around
and try to emulate the 89 men that were here before me? Why not do my own thing, and then
have them follow me? Kind of improve upon it a little bit."
A notable career
Sears personality shines from every corner of her downtown office. Over her door
is a bumper sticker: "Jesus is coming look busy." Commemorative plaques
line the walls. Behind her desk, a credenza holds an array of framed photos. In one, the
Justice and a handsome man pose wearing gaudy sombreros. He is Haskell George Ward, 58,
former deputy mayor of New York City under Ed Koch, and now her fiancÚ. Other photos
showcase the children Addison, age 15, and Brennan, age 12 from her 20-year
marriage, which ended four years ago.
Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Sears grew up in Savannah. She graduated from Cornell
University and Emory University School of Law. She received a masters degree in
appellate judicial process from the University of Virginia, and she has studied in the
masters degree program at the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada.
Before being elected to the Fulton County Superior Court in 1988, she practiced law at
Alston & Bird and served six years as a judge in Atlanta City Court.
In February 1992, Miller appointed Sears to the state Supreme Court to complete the
term of Justice George T. Smith, who retired. After just five months on the job, Sears
successfully defended her seat in the July 1992 election.
Four years later, she and her colleagues on the states highest court were faced
with a high-profile challenge of the states sodomy law. L. Chris Christensen, a gay
man arrested for soliciting sodomy from an undercover cop at a public rest area,
challenged both the sodomy and solicitation for sodomy laws.
Sears split from the majority, which upheld his conviction, in a blistering dissent in
which she branded the majoritys ruling a "corrosion of rights guaranteed to the
citizens of this State" and said that "the result of the majority opinion is
pathetic and disgraceful, and has tragic implications for the constitutional rights of the
citizens of this State."
This dissent, as well as some of Sears opinions, was cited in the advertising on
behalf of George Weaver, a conservative challenger to her Supreme Court seat whose
aggressive effort to unseat Sears last summer earned him a rebuke from the Judicial
Qualifications Committee. Sears branded Weavers campaign "racist, bigoted,
prejudiced and narrow-minded." Still, Sears served up what she called "a big
trouncing" and avoided a runoff by taking 54 percent of the primary vote.
Last November, Sears stood with the majority of justices when, in a 6-1 decision, they
struck down Georgias 182-year-old sodomy law as unconstitutional. Constitutional
"Almost every case that has to do with constitutional issues like due process,
freedom of religion and privacy is really big with me. Those are my most exciting
cases," Sears said. "Not that Im not interested in tax and zoning, but I
really get excited about the larger cases of constitutional enforcement."
She said she has observed "in American society in general, a more tolerant
attitude about people
who are different than other people," including gays and
lesbians. "Im very tolerant, and I like people, and I support the tolerance of
people to other people in lifestyles." But she added a caveat.
"I think we may be going too far, though, in an anything goes type of
society. I believe the two dont necessarily go together accepting people for
who they are doesnt necessarily mean anything goes."
Sears also talked about the national trend away from laws regulating intimate personal
conduct. "Its going to continue, but only to a point," she said. She
predicted a continued lessening of government regulation in "purely private
areas"; ongoing state influence over those "that are purely public"
and debate over those matters that some consider public but others call private.
Adultery is one such issue. "Theres a lot of gray area there. Are those the
kinds of things that, even if they do have a slight impact on other people, we should be
regulating? Or should we be leaving this to the churches, your spiritual advisors and your
own moral compass?"
Gay activists have sometimes angered civil rights leaders by comparing the two
political movements. "I think they are probably inherently different," Sears
said, chiefly because most black people cannot conceal their race in the way some gay
people can hide their sexual orientation when expedient. But, she said, "These are
both struggles for civil and human rights.
I would say yes, a comparison can be
"I sometimes wonder if the black men and its almost always black men
who are shouting so loud that theyre not the same might be a little
homophobic or something themselves."
For reasons of professional ethics, Sears declined to discuss gay marriage. But when
asked about the comments of black lesbian author Barbara Smith who recently told
Southern Voice, "As a leftist, Im leery of following a model that has not
served heterosexuals particularly heterosexual women very well"
Sears turned the discussion to assimilation, an issue long debated by minority groups.
"Shes got a real good point. Thats always perplexed me about
minorities need to assimilate.
Thats what I thought all my life. Why just try
to fit in with everyone else, when you know you wont? You just cant, because
youre different. Why not carve out a niche that suits you better?"
A busy life
Sears activities on the states high court are markedly different from her
earlier work as a trial judge. "I spend most of my day reading, writing and talking
to the other judges. In a trial court, you go to court and have constant interaction with
the litigants. I have very little of that.
"We are an appellate court, charged with correcting errors, shaping public policy
and interpreting laws. This job is a lot more academic, and thats good for me. I
love to write; I love to articulate; and I love constitutional law. I love the power of
helping to shape where we are going."
Last year, Sears left her home in Ansley Park and moved, with her children and her
mother, to "one of the nicer neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta." Both children
attend Woodward Academy on the south side of town.
Sears family will gain a new member May 1, when she marries Ward in the Supreme
Court chambers. Their first meeting took place under unlikely circumstances.
"The Chief [Justice Robert Benham] was scheduled to go to a Rotary Club meeting in
Griffin. He couldnt make it, and he told me to go. I was grumbling, oh,
Griffin! Rotary Club!" Out walks this tall handsome black man." That was a year
and a half ago.
"I really enjoy his counsel," Sears said of Ward.
Sears juggles her relationships with her children, mother and fiancÚ with her judicial
and civic responsibilities. Most Americans, she said, "are more interested in their
own lives" than in race relations and all the particular issues of the multi-cultural
society. Yet she remains optimistic about the nation and its future.
"I think most Americans Im pretty idealistic in this are good,
decent, fair-minded people. We dont really wish other people ill. But I also think
theyre focused on their own needs and responsibilities and duties.
"I think we come and go, move a little further, move a little back. Hopefully, one
day well get it but not anytime soon."
Atlanta Executive Network presents Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah J. Sears,
Thursday, Feb. 18. Doors open at 6 p.m., Sheraton Colony Square, $10 members; $20
non-members; students free; 404-724-9008
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