Leah Ward Sears served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia from 2005 until 2009. During those same years she was also chair of the Judicial Council of Georgia. In 1992, when she was appointed by Georgia governor Zell Miller, Sears became the first woman and the youngest justice to sit on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Thirteen years later, in 2005, Sears was elected as chief justice, becoming the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court in the United States.
Education and Early Career
Leah Sears was born in Heidelberg, Germany, on June 13, 1955, to Onnye Jean and Thomas E. Sears, a U.S. army colonel. Her father’s career required the family to be stationed throughout the world, and Sears experienced a transitory life until the age of sixteen. The family eventually settled in Savannah, where Sears attended and graduated from Savannah High School. She then attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she received her bachelor of science degree in 1976. After her graduation and marriage to Love Collins III, with whom she had two children, Addison and Brennan, Sears changed her name to Leah Collins-Sears. (Sears and Collins later divorced, and she reverted to the name Leah Sears from 1994 to 1999.) In 1980 she graduated from the law school at Emory University in Atlanta, and in 1995 she received a master of laws degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville.
Prior to becoming a judge, Sears worked in the early 1980s as an attorney with the law firm of Alston and Bird in Atlanta. In 1982 Atlanta mayor Andrew Young appointed her to the City of Atlanta Traffic Court, a position that gave her considerable experience in courtroom administration. In 1988, at the age of thirty-two, Sears became a Fulton County Superior Court judge, and the youngest person ever elected to a superior court seat in the state of Georgia. During her tenure she earned praise from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for “her preparation, her grasp of the law, and her practical sense of how to apply it.” In one highly publicized case, Sears decided against the attempt by Scottish Rite Hospital (later Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) to deescalate life support for a terminally ill child. When the child’s parents objected on religious grounds to the proposed termination of the support system, Sears denied Scottish Rite Hospital the right to withhold life support.
State Supreme Court Justice
In 1992 Governor Miller began interviewing candidates to hold an interim seat on the Supreme Court of Georgia. Sears was among a select group interviewed for the position, and at thirty-six years old she was the youngest in contention. During her interview, Sears argued that diversity on the high court should include age as a criterion, and she highlighted her service as a judge on two quite different Georgia courts. Miller selected her for the position, but in order to retain her seat Sears had to win an election against challenger Stephen Boswell, a former Clayton County Superior Court judge. On July 21, 1992, Sears won the close race to retain her position on the supreme court, becoming the first woman to win a contested statewide election in Georgia.
Early in her tenure on the supreme court Sears, a Democrat and moderate liberal, established a friendship with U.S. Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative Republican. Despite their political differences and Thomas’s ostracism from much of the Black civil rights community, the two southeast Georgia natives maintain a close relationship.
In 2005 Sears was elected by her fellow justices to be chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. During her tenure, Sears earned a reputation as a justice committed to upholding both an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Her notable opinions include affirming the decision to overturn a state law against sodomy and denouncing the electric chair as a humane form of execution.
The founder of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys and the Columbus branch of the Battered Women’s Project, Sears is an active member of many community boards around the state, as well as of the Institute for American Values in New York City. She is also the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including “100 Most Influential Georgians” in Georgia Trend magazine, an honorary doctor of law degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, the Margaret Brent Woman Lawyer of Achievement award from the American Bar Association, and the Excellence in Public Service Award from the Georgia Coalition of Black Women.
Sears lives in Atlanta with her husband, Griffin native Haskell Ward, a retired judge and former deputy mayor of New York City, whom she married in 1999.
In 2008 Sears announced her decision to leave the supreme court at the end of June 2009 to pursue other endeavors. In May 2009 Sears was considered as a potential replacement for retiring U.S. Supreme Court justice David Souter, but Sonia Sotomayor ultimately secured the nomination. Later that year Sears joined the law firm of Schiff Hardin in Atlanta, and in 2010 she was elected to Emory University’s Board of Trustees.