Justice Leah Ward Sears

Leah Ward Sears is at once bubbly, beautiful and brilliant; an exemplar of elegance and excellence. After 17 years on the pressure-packed Georgia Supreme Court and twice enduring the scrutiny of making the short list as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, the first African American woman chief justice of a state supreme court now says she is serenely content being a “teacher.” From her office in midtown Atlanta, she now leads the national appellate team of the Chicago-based law firm, Schiff Hardin LLP.

“I don’t have to be high profile,” she says while overlooking Atlanta from her plush high-rise office.” It’s time for me to impart what I know. I’m glad to be here to teach about the practice of law and the appellate process. And I’m also enjoying just being around the 30 and 40-something year olds; they are something else,” she laughs. “It’s good to pass the knowledge and wisdom on. And how do those 30 and 40- something year olds feel about her? “Given [Sears’] achievements and influence, no matter who you are, it’s easy to feel intimidated and insignificant when you’re in the room with her,” says Kimberly Bourroughs, an associate who works closely with Sears. “But then, just when you go to take the backseat, she brings you to her side and asks, ‘What do you think?’ Her inclusion of those around her and the appreciation she shows toward them are often the lessons that are worth more than what any lawyer can learn in over a thousand billable hours. Light-heartedly, Sears comments, “I am what some might say is the office ‘Yoda.’ I wasn’t put on earth just to suck up the limelight.”

The 55-year-old Sears has basked in the limelight since age 32 when she was elected to the Fulton County Superior Court in 1988, becoming the first African American woman and, at that time, the youngest person to win a Superior Court seat in Georgia. Four years later, Georgia Governor and later U.S. Senator, Zell Miller appointed her as the first woman and youngest person ever named to the Georgia Supreme Court. In 2005,  she  was sworn  in  as Chief Justice by her mentor, former Mayor Andrew Young, as well as her friend and fellow Savannah native, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“Right before I became Chief Justice, I sometimes doubted myself. I didn’t know if I could do it. My husband, Haskell Ward, my greatest supporter,  said it was a common “woman thing”—too many women doubt themselves and refuse to take risks as a result. But I was driving around I-285 one day and it just hit me. God makes no mistakes. You’re about to become Chief Justice of a Deep South state, dammit, so you will do it because you have to. You’ve got all these people--including black folks and women--riding on your shoulders. So you just have to do it and do it right.’ I decided right then and there that, whatever it took, I would die trying to do it right. After all, my grandparents, as well as my father and mother, worked hard and made many sacrifices to position me. I knew that it was my time to do what had to be done,” she candidly says.

That included a palpable political feud with former Governor Sonny Perdue in a celebrated lawsuit. “I believe he wasn’t happy when he thought I was not on his side in the Perdue vs. Thurbert Baker case,” she recalls. “The issue was over who had the ultimate power to bring a lawsuit. It was a 4 to 3 decision, and I was with the majority. The outcome of the case was that neither one could control the other and either one had the right to pursue litigation. In other words, both had the power. I thought that was the middle ground. But that also meant that the governor did not have the power to tell the attorney general what to do litigation-wise, and vice versa. It was what I thought the law required, and it was a good outcome for the state. It was never personal with me. It was about power sharing.”

After her term as Chief Justice was finished, Sears stunned Perdue and a few other politicos with what many pundits considered a controversial decision to abruptly retire from the Supreme Court. But Sears says that she had been considering it for years and many people knew that. Sears also says that she felt that she had mastered everything she could in that seat. “I was leaving the bench and some people were angry that I was leaving,” she says. “But I knew it was time to move on, and it was time for new blood on the court. After all, I’d been in what I sometimes describe as ‘the convent’ for 17 years.”

And she concedes she lived with a heavy burden of racial responsibility every day that she was on the bench. “I was walking a tight rope,” she recalls. “Every decision I made and every speech I gave, I knew had to be good because I was forging new ground. It’s like you’re cracking a ceiling and so the cracks have to be clean so that they don’t cut the next person on their way up. You can’t get up there and be a buffoon so that the next guy has to jump over a bigger hurdle.”

Sears also reveals she wanted to come off the court, in part, to be able to speak out on issues. “I’m writing much more now, and my articles are being published,” she says, proudly. “As a lawyer, I can speak to broader audiences, and I can actually say more. When I announced that I was going to retire, I got a letter from Governor Miller and he said something like, ‘I can see why you are leaving because you have a lot that you want to say and I believe you should have a phase of your life when you can say it.’ I don’t know what my future holds but it will have been nice to be in this phase where I had the opportunity to speak out on issues that matter to me.”

After Sears retired in 2009, while Sears was teaching at the University of Georgia’s Law School on family law issues and also while serving as the William Thomas Sears Fellow at the Institute for American Values, she surprisingly, found herself on President Barack Obama’s short list as a candidate to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nod for the two vacancies for which she was considered ultimately went to Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. “It was a heady and heavy experience,” she says.

“Imagine a little black girl from Savannah, Georgia, being looked at carefully by the President of the United States. The first time was stressful. The scrutiny was very intense. It was just a lot to chew on at the time.”

Justice Leah Ward Sears has always been a woman who is comfortable in her own skin; self-confident in the fashionable femininity she exudes. “I consider dressing an art,” she explains.  As my moods change, I change what I like to wear. I like clothes and dressing how I feel. It’s a mode of expression, and I find it very joyful. Even though I knew when I was a young girl that I would enter a predominantly male profession, I never wanted to give up all, what my husband calls, ‘the girly stuff.’”

Sears has also proudly been a trend setter by wearing her hair in different natural styles. She says she hasn’t straightened her hair in over 20 years when much of it broke off as a result of a “too toxic perm”. In fact, her hair is her signature. It is always artistically and uniquely designed, giving her a strikingly, stylish appearance. Sears embraces her look enthusiastically.

“I always wear my hair naturally,” she explains. “And, yes, it is a statement. It’s not a Black Power statement like it was in the 70’s. It’s about accepting my hair as it is and being happy with it. I don’t want to fight with my hair; beat it down, and try to make it submit so that it becomes something God didn’t intend for it to be. For years, some family members used to ask me “When are you going get your hair fixed?” That meant when are you going to get it straightened.  “Well I can tell you that the answer is never! It’s naturally curly. And I’m happy nappy,” she says with a hearty laugh.

“For me different hairstyles go with different outfits, just like shoes do,” continues the aficionado of the ultra-feminine style of the '50's and 60's. "I am into fashion and I do like to change it.

 I also like to surprise my husband, Haskell, with my changes.” Sears looks back fondly at her tenure of the Supreme Court of Georgia, but refuses to rest on those accomplishments. “I don’t want to be one of those people who go around saying ‘20 years ago, I was this or I was that.’  There’s still so much work to be done. I can’t live in the past. The past is the past. For me it’s what am I doing now?”

Despite her cushy and professionally satisfying position with Schiff Hardin, speculation swarms that Justice Sears will soon seek another political office. “I might,” she admits.  “Who knows?  To be honest, everything is on the table. I can’t think of an office, but, heck, I didn’t think I’d be Chief Justice, either. You never know. My heart is open. I can’t think of anything that would be as exciting as what I’ve done, but you never know. It could be an appointive office or another elected one. You’ve got to stay loose, you know, see where things go and then be in there.”

Loose? Well, yes. But don’t expect her to sit around and wait until the phone rings. During the meantime, Sears continues to enjoy her life just as it is in this very moment. And life is very good. Every day, she looks forward to early mornings in the office, shopping with her young adult daughter, Brennan Sears- Collins, Sunday afternoon teas with her mother, Onnye Jean, long-distance calls coming from all corners of the world from her talented son, Addison, Friday night dinner at Cracker Barrel with her husband, and weekends at the park with the family dog, Suave. She may not know where life is taking her next, but she notes, “I am enjoying the ride!”