CHICAGO —Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, will receive the 2011 Spirit of Excellence Award of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
The award will be presented Feb. 12 at a luncheon at the Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, during the 2011 ABA Midyear Meeting.
Sears left the state high court in 2009, joining the Atlanta office of the law firm Schiff Hardin LLP, as a partner in the litigation group.
“Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears is an inspiration for all lawyers, and for diversity across a spectrum of qualities,” said Fred Alvarez, chair of the commission, in announcing her selection. “She was the first female African-American chief justice in the history of the United States, a distinction that was, and could only be, accorded by vote of her peers on the state high court,” said Alvarez. He also noted that Sears was the youngest person ever elected to the Georgia high court, and was among the youngest high court justices in the nation when she was elected to a full judicial term in 1992. Prior to her election she had been appointed to the court by then Gov. Zell Miller.
After her election to the state’s highest court, Sears reportedly told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that she believed her age was her most important asset as a member of the court, saying “I thought it was time to diversify the court, not just by race and sex, but in age as well. I could be the voice of people who grew up [in the] post-civil rights era.” In 2005, Sears was elected chief justice by her colleagues on the high court.
Achievement at an early age has been a hallmark of Sears’ career. At age 32, she was the youngest person, as well as the first African-American woman, to win a state-wide contested election race when she was elected to the Fulton County Superior Court. She was a judge of the City Court of Atlanta from 1985 to 1988, and practiced in Atlanta with the firm of Alton & Bird from 1980 to 1985.
Sears’ contributions to diversity are only part of her public service, said Alvarez. She was the founding president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, and has been an advisor to the Children’s Defense Fund’s Black Community Crusade for Children. She is also a member of the National Association of Women Judges and the National Task Force on Gender Bias in the Courts, and during her service as chair of the Judicial Section of the Atlanta Bar Association she also chaired its Minority Clerkship Program.
As chief justice, Sears spearheaded the court’s Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law, and its Committee on Civil Justice. The commission addressed legal and administrative issues stemming from increasingly fragmented families in the state, while the committee was established to develop, coordinate and support policy initiatives to expand access to courts for poor and vulnerable Georgians.
She founded and was the first president of the Battered Women’s Project of Columbus, Ga., and was an active member of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. She is on the Advisory Council for Action Ministries, served on the board of directors of the Sadie G. Mays Nursing Home, and in the Georgia Chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews. She was on the advisory board of the Albany Law Review, and was in the honors program at North Georgia College. She also was on the Cornell University Women’s Council and the Steering Committee for Georgia Women’s History Month, and was an advisor for the Atlanta Women’s Network. She currently serves on the Emory University Board of Trustees, and previously served on the Board of Visitors of Mercer Law School. She has been an adjunct professor at Emory and as a visiting professor at the University of Georgia School of Law.
She is a member of the National Association of Women Judges; the Atlanta Chapter of Links, Inc.; the Women’s Forum of Georgia; the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society; and the American, Georgia, Gate City, Atlanta and National Bar Associations. She received her Bachelor of Science from Cornell University and her law degree from Emory University School of Law, and a Master of Laws in Appellate Judicial Process from the University of Virginia College of Law.
Sears resides in Georgia with her husband, Haskell Sears Ward, and is the mother of two children: Addison Sears-Collins and Brennan Sears-Collins.
The ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is a catalyst to change the legal profession to reflect the society it serves. It helps racially and ethnically diverse lawyers advance their careers and standing in the profession. Its leadership, programs and information help the profession understand and eliminate racism, bigotry and discrimination. The commission works to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession, and thus enrich it.
With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.