Last edited: December 18, 2004

Justice Sears Style

Southern Voice, February 11, 1999
Atlanta, GA

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 can’t do anything about," Leah J. Sears said last week, speaking deliberately, but without hesitation. "It’s 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 wasn’t 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 – it’s good to be different. I’ll 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 every day."

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 state’s 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 master’s degree in appellate judicial process from the University of Virginia, and she has studied in the master’s 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 state’s highest court were faced with a high-profile challenge of the state’s 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 majority’s 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 Weaver’s 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 Georgia’s 182-year-old sodomy law as unconstitutional. Constitutional issues key

"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 I’m 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. "I’m 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 don’t necessarily go together – accepting people for who they are doesn’t necessarily mean ‘anything goes.’"

Sears also talked about the national trend away from laws regulating intimate personal conduct. "It’s 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. "There’s 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 made.

"I sometimes wonder if the black men – and it’s almost always black men – who are shouting so loud that they’re 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, I’m 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.

"She’s got a real good point. That’s always perplexed me about minorities need to assimilate. … That’s what I thought all my life. Why just try to fit in with everyone else, when you know you won’t? You just can’t, because you’re different. Why not carve out a niche that suits you better?"

A busy life

Sears’ activities on the state’s 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 that’s 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 couldn’t 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 – I’m pretty idealistic in this – are good, decent, fair-minded people. We don’t really wish other people ill. But I also think they’re 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 we’ll 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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