Leah Sears Curriculum Resources
On September 2, 2010, the Georgia Historical Society hosted An Evening with Leah Ward Sears, a moderated discussion featuring former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Leah Ward Sears. The event took place in Savannah at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts. The biographical information, suggested resources, and questions to consider were developed to inspire classroom discussions and activities based on the results of the event.
Leah Ward Sears was born into a military family on June 13, 1955, in Heidelburg, Germany, the daughter of U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Sears and Onnye Jean Sears, a teacher. Like most military families, the Sears family traveled a great deal. She had seen much of Europe before first coming to the United States at the age of six. Her childhood included experiences in many places, surrounded by many diverse people and ideas, teaching Sears from a very early age the importance of learning to interact with and understand people of different cultures and experiences.
As a child, Sears decided to study the law as a way to help people, but she also noted that most lawyers she saw in the law school catalogs she read looked very different from her – they were white and male. She determined then that she would have to work harder and get the best education possible to achieve her dream.
At the age of twelve, her family moved to Savannah, were she lived until after graduation from high school. While in Savannah, her father (recently retired from the Army) earned his law degree, no doubt inspiring his daughter to one day do the same. In fact all three Sears children – Leah and her two brothers – earned degrees in law. After much hard work throughout her young life, Leah Sears earned a full scholarship to Cornell University in New York. After graduating from Cornell, she returned to Georgia to earn her law degree from Emory University. She also earned a Masters of Law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.
Her hard work continued after finishing school as she began her successful career as a lawyer in Atlanta. At the age of twenty seven she was appointed by Mayor Andrew Young to the Atlanta City Court, beginning what would eventually become an almost thirty-year career on the bench. In 1992 she was appointed by Governor Zell Miller to the Georgia Supreme Court, becoming the first woman and youngest person to ever serve on the state’s highest court. She later won a contested statewide election (the first time for a woman in Georgia) for her seat on the court. She would continue to win statewide elections until retiring as Chief Justice of the Court in 2009.
When she became Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005, she became not only the first woman to hold that position in Georgia but the first African-American woman to ever hold the Chief Justice position on a state supreme court. Many of her decisions (sometimes given as the dissent to the majority opinion of the court) point to an abiding interest in family law and matters of civil justice. Her time on the Georgia Court brought numerous honors, awards, and recognition.
In June 2009, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears retired from the Georgia Supreme Court. With years of her career still ahead of her at age 54, Sears decided to join the Atlanta law firm of Schiff Hardin, thereby re-entering private legal practice after twenty-seven years as a judge. She also took a position as visiting professor at the University of Georgia Law School teaching courses on family law and accepted a fellowship at the Institute of American Values in New York – a private, non-profit organization described by Sears as contributing, “intellectually to strengthening families and civil societies in the United States and the world.” With these new projects underway, and since she has twice been discussed as a possible pick for United States Supreme Court, her career and her impact on the law are likely far from over.
Suggestions for Further Online Research
- The New Georgia Encyclopedia article on Leah Sears
- Georgia Trend article on Leah Sears as she anticipates becoming Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court
- CNN.com commentary by Leah Sears on the importance of strengthening marriage and families
- CNN.com commentary by Leah Sears regarding hearing that she was under consideration, again, for the U.S. Supreme Court while visiting the Arab nation of Oman
- The Supreme Court of Georgia website contains information on the Georgia Court as well as examples of some of the legal opinions written by Chief Justice Sears
Questions to Consider
How might the following national legislative acts and judicial decisions have impacted Leah Sears’ life and decisions to practice law:
- Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Title XI of the Education Amendments of 1972
Read this article in Georgia Trend Magazine to learn more about Sears’ life and the decisions she made along the way that determined her life’s path. What were some of the things she did from childhood onward to make her dream of becoming a judge a reality?
The job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution to determine questions of law. Review some of the cases considered by the Georgia Court during Leah Sears’ tenure as justice. What would you decide? Visit the National Archives online for more information on the U.S. Constitution.