A former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Leah Ward Sears was the first woman and youngest person to sit on the Supreme Court of Georgia, as well as the first African American to serve as chief justice on any supreme court in the U.S.
Sears was recently honored as one of “Savannah Women of Vision” by Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) President and Founder Paula Wallace. Leah Ward Sears was born in Heidelberg, Germany to United States Army Colonel Thomas E. Sears and Onnye Jean Sears. The family eventually settled in Savannah, Georgia, where she attended and graduated from Savannah High School.
Sears received a B.S. from Cornell University in 1976, her Juris Doctor from Emory University School of Law in 1980, and a Master of Laws from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1995. At Cornell, Sears was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Quill and Dagger society. She holds honorary degrees from Morehouse College, Clark-Atlanta University, LaGrange College, Piedmont College, and Spelman College. After graduating from law school, Sears was an attorney from 1980 until 1985 with the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird. For many years she was also an adjunct Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law.
Sears was appointed by Mayor Andrew Young to the City of Atlanta Traffic Court in 1985. She then became a Superior Court judge in 1988, becoming the first African American woman to hold that position in the state. Sears was appointed as a state Supreme Court justice in 1992. Twelve years later, in what is historically a non-partisan election, the Georgia Republican Party and Georgia Christian Coalition targeted Sears for defeat in 2004. However, she easily defeated her challenger with 62 percent of the vote, and became Chief Justice of the Court in June 2005.
“I had very supportive parents that made the way for me, even at a time when there were very few women – no women, really; maybe two or three women – and very few, fewer than that, African-American women heading in this direction, so there were very few people to look up to. You just had to have faith”, said Sears about her tenure as Supreme Court Justice. Sears announced in October 2008 that she would resign from the state Supreme Court at the end of June 2009 when her term as Chief Justice ended.
She is currently a partner and practice group leader at Schiff Hardin.