By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2009
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears came to St. Thomas More School on Tuesday, Feb. 17, prepared to give a presentation for Black History Month.
But as she began to address the crowd of nearly 200 fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, she decided to leave her notes behind and lead a candid discussion with the students about any topic they desired.
A history maker who graduated from Cornell University and Emory Law School, she was the first African-American woman to serve as a Georgia Superior Court judge and in February 1992 became the first woman and the youngest person to serve on the state Supreme Court. In 2005 she became the first African-American woman chief justice in the country.
Her public service also includes serving on the board of directors of the Morehouse School of Medicine Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, the Sadie G. Mays Nursing Home and the Georgia Chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews.
Sears also founded and served as the first president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys.
“I have known all my life that I had an interest in public service,” she told the students.
After briefly describing how she came to hold a seat on Georgia’s highest court, she let the students ask her questions on any topic.
Their questions ranged from her favorite color to whether or not she thinks the president’s economic stimulus package will be effective. She openly answered every question, thanking the child afterward for being part of the dialogue.
One student approached the microphone at the front of Mulhern Hall and asked Sears what inspired her to become a judge and not, say, a teacher.
Sears pondered that for a moment, then explained that she always wanted to be involved in the legal system, but she just wasn’t sure in what capacity.
“You have to have a certain level of patience to teach,” Sears said as the teachers in the room let out a soft giggle.
“I just didn’t have the disposition to be a teacher,” she said.
Sears spoke about her early life, telling the crowd how she was born on a U.S. Army base in Germany and how shocked she was when she came to the United States five years later and found the racial barriers of the time.
“I had never known segregation,” said Sears.
Sears also spoke about her heroes, including her parents and Earl Warren, the 14th chief justice of the United States, whose tenure included the landmark decision overturning the legality of separate schools for black and white children. Warren “made great strides for individual rights” and inspired her to become active politically, Sears said.
In her years on the state Supreme Court she has been a strong advocate for children and families and an advocate for marriage as the most “pro-child” institution the nation has.
Before the chief justice finished her talk, she reminded the children that she is “very open” and encouraged them to call, e-mail or drop by her office if they felt the need to continue the discussion or had any questions for her.
“I think it was very interesting because she is so high up, but she still comes to schools to speak,” said Madeleine Henner, a sixth-grader.