Mike Klein Online

A Pioneer: Leah Ward Sears

Atlanta Mike Pix_Press_Club_189_-_Version_2The State Supreme Court of Georgia begins a new era this very day as Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein is elevated to Chief Justice with the retirement of Leah Ward Sears, who at a rather tender age professionally (just 53) has chosen to step forward into the next stage of her life.

Hunstein is a remarkable jurist with steely resolve, keen judicial temper and a life story that reads like few others, maybe none.   It is a fair prediction here that her tenure will be remembered for many judicial accomplishments.  This is a strong woman, a significant personality, a leader.

As Chief Justice Hunstein takes the Supreme Court reins, Leah Ward Sears retires into private life. She leaves, temporarily at least, as a pioneer.  Appointed to the Court at age 36, she became the first African American woman to serve as its Chief Justice.

Sears has said that during those early years on the Court, being an African-American woman was not her greatest challenge.  It was youth.  She had to overcome the unmistakable  stripes of youth;  The average age of her fellow Justices was 63.

Retirement is hardly the word.  Sears will travel extensively, then join the Atlanta office of Schiff-Hardin, teach legally inquisitive young minds at the University of Georgia Law School and join a New York-based think tank that specializes in family issues, long one of her major priorities.

Ultimately, the gaming money is she will be back, perhaps named to a federal bench.   Perhaps even THE federal bench, the United States Supreme Court, northeast a ways from Atlanta, Georgia.

Supreme Courts are unusual places in public life.   Unlike legislators and other highly prominent elected characters, we focus  less on and usually hear less from Supreme Court Justices.  They are more below than above the radar.   This is arguably not the same at the federal level, where scrutiny is extreme, confirmation hearings are broadcast nationally and the musings and writings of justices are fodder for news pundits.

But in Georgia, Supreme Court justices are not headline makers.   How many folks that you know, and how many high school seniors, can name even one or two State Supreme Court Justices?  They appear on ballots, like other elected folks, but until recently, their judicial races were relatively ho-hum affairs.   Recent politics has made their contests more like a dirt track race.

As she departs the greatest contribution from Leah Ward Sears to the Supreme Court of Georgia may not have been any ruling, opinion or vote on questions of law.  More than others who served there in recent memory,  Sears sought to open the doors, let in the light and ensure that a fresh, more engaged atmosphere circulated through the Supreme Court.

Several weeks ago Sears described the challenge when she spoke to Atlanta Press Club luncheon guests at The Commerce Club.  She joked that the history of the Court consisted of opinions, and not much else.  Justices were pretty much behind their doors.  Now, she said, you can call the Court and somebody will tell you something!  Reporters, she said, know the difference.

“Older reporters will remember that if you tried to get something out of a Justice, you were told, ‘The opinion speaks for itself,’” she told the Press Club audience a few weeks ago.

Today the Supreme Court has a full time public information officer, justices participate with the public in many venues and there has been an effort to improve transparency.  “If you call the Court now, somebody will tell you something,” she said.

About one year ago, Sears became convinced the Supreme Court needed to tell a better story.  A vastly improved website (www.gasupreme.us ) is part of that result.  And, largely through her persuasion, all six of her colleagues agreed to sit for extended interviews that would be used to create a new historical video, along with individual Justice video profiles.

That video history is available now on the Supreme Court website.  Click on the links to “Court History” and “Biographies”.   This should become a valuable resource inside Georgia classrooms.

There is, however, one significant missing piece.  The edited interview with Leah Ward Sears is missing from the Supreme Court site.   The content is exceptional; I know that to be true because I was in the room when she spoke on-camera for nearly an hour.

I hope the Court decides to add a new biographies section:  “Retired Justices”.

It would be a shame to lose her insight just because Leah Ward Sears left the building.

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July 1, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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