We continue our profiles of short-listed potential nominees with Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
Justice Sears was born in 1955 in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father served as a colonel in the Army. Her family later settled in Savannah, Georgia, and she attended high school there. She received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, J.D. from Emory University School of Law, and, later, an LLM from the University of Virginia Law School in 1995. After graduating from law school she joined the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird.
Five years later Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young appointed Sears to Atlanta’s City Traffic Court, and three years after that, in 1988, she was elected to the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia – the first African-American woman to hold this position in Georgia. In 1992 Georgia governor Zell Miller appointed her to Georgia’s Supreme Court. She was the first woman and the youngest judge (36) to sit on that court. She became Chief Justice in 2005 and retired from the court in 2009 when her term as Chief Justice ended. She is now with the law firm of Schiff Hardin, LLP, in Atlanta.
Justice Sears was among those considered last year to replace Justice David Souter.
Some notable decisions by Justice Sears:
• Reaves v. State, 664 S.E.2d 211 (Ga. 2008): dissenting from holding that search warrants were sufficiently particular, stating that the authorization in the warrants to seize unspecified “notes” and “papers” lacked sufficient detail to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.
• Ruffin v. State, 663 S.E.2d 189 (Ga. 2008): holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the defendant’s speedy trial claim where trial was delayed more than two years.
• Davis v. State, 660 S.E.2d 354 (Ga. 2008): dissenting in case of defendant convicted for murdering police officer and sentenced to death, stating that the majority should have considered new evidence presented by the defendant. (In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a federal trial court to consider evidence of innocence. In re Troy Anthony Davis, 130 S. Ct. 1 (2009)).
• Advance PCS v. Bauer, 632 S.E.2d 95 (Ga. 2006): holding that ERISA preempted breast cancer survivors’ claims that pharmaceutical benefits manager was unjustly enriched by improperly classifying tamoxifen as a brand-name instead of a generic drug.
• O’Kelley v. Cox, 604 S.E.2d 773 (Ga. 2004): dissenting from holding that citizens had no right to invoke the power of the judiciary to enjoin enactment of a proposed constitutional amendment, stating that citizens must be allowed to challenge proposed legislation that violates the single subject rule.
• Head v. Hill, 587 S.E.2d 613 (Ga. 2003): dissenting from holding that “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applied to defendant’s mental retardation claims, stating that a condemned prisoner who claims mental retardation may be held only to a preponderance of the evidence standard
• Georgia Dep’t of Human Resources v. Sweat, 580 S.E.2d 206 (Ga. 2003): holding that Georgia’s statutory child support guidelines did not violate the constitutional guarantees of due process, equal protection or privacy, or result in an unconstitutional taking of property.
• Howard v. State, 527 S.E.2d 194 (Ga. 2000): dissenting from holding that solicitation-of-sodomy statute did not violate state constitutional rights to privacy and free speech, stating that the statute was constitutionally overbroad and made it illegal to solicit another to engage in constitutionally protected conduct.
• Wilson v. State, 525 S.E.2d 339 (Ga. 1999): dissenting from affirmance of death sentence, stating that electrocution violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (Two years later the Georgia Supreme Court, in Dawson v. State, 554 S.E.2d 137 (Ga. 2001), abolished electrocution.)
• Gibson v. Turpin, 513 S.E.2d 186 (Ga. 1999): dissenting from holding that petitioner was not entitled to appointed counsel in habeas corpus proceeding, stating that fundamental fairness demands that a condemned prisoner have the benefit of competent counsel to navigate the procedural and substantive morass of habeas corpus law.