Leah Ward Sears has had a career of firsts, including first woman (and youngest person) appointed to the Georgia Supreme Court, first woman to win a statewide contested election in Georgia and first black woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court in the United States.
By age 7 or 8, she said, she had decided to be a lawyer. “I wanted to be in a profession that had the power to change things, to make things right in the world,” she said.
Sears has credited her parents, a U.S. Air Force pilot and a teacher, with setting her on a path to achievement. “I was reared to get out there and compete in a man’s world and not whine,” she said in an interview with Georgia Super Lawyers magazine.
“Being the first was always a little difficult,” Sears said. “I had to fight to be accepted. I didn't do it by having a chip on my shoulder; I just worked hard.”
After 17 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, in 2009, Sears decided to change jobs. She wanted different challenges. She began teaching law and became a partner with a national law firm. She leads the team that handles appeals and helps colleagues see cases from a judge’s point of view. “I’m loving every minute being in front of the bench,” she said.
Sears said she is following her husband’s advice to keep challenging herself. “There’s a thrill to setting sail in a new direction, if you have the guts to do it,” she said. “I’m not sure everybody really wants to do that. I do, though. I do if the ship won’t sink.”
The biggest first might lie ahead: Twice, she has been on President Obama’s short list of judges to consider for an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court. If she were ever to be appointed, she would become the first black woman on the highest court in the land.