Justice Leah Ward Sears. (Photo courtesy of Leah Ward Sears)

Justice Leah Ward Sears encourages GOLD Speaker Series participants to positively influence others

Sep 21, 2020
Kathryne Davis

Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears spoke Wednesday, Sept. 16, as part of The Women’s College of Brenau University’s GOLD Speaker Series, encouraging the Brenau community and guests to have courage and make a difference.

The GOLD Speaker Series features highly accomplished and trailblazing women. This is an ongoing component of The Women’s College’s GOLD Program, which in this “O” year focuses on ownership of personal and civic responsibility. With the theme “Own Your Voice, Create Your Community,” students will serve their communities and develop the power of their voices to promote positive social change.

“One person could make a huge, huge difference,” Sears said during the virtual talk held via Zoom. “All it takes sometimes is just one person. One person with a little bit of courage. One person who’s willing to do what somebody else is not going to do. One person can save a child’s life who might be floundering with one little whisper into the ear.”

Sears is currently a partner in the Business Litigation and Appellate Practice at Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP. Before returning to private practice, she enjoyed 17 years of distinguished service on the Georgia Supreme Court, including four years as chief justice.

She was the first woman and youngest justice to serve on the state’s Supreme Court, the first woman to serve as a superior court judge in Fulton County and the first woman to win a contested statewide election in Georgia. In 2005, Sears became the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court in the country.

One story Sears shared — and a common theme among GOLD series speakers — was how difficult it was to work in a field dominated by men. Sears said she became emotional when she found out another woman would be joining her on the Supreme Court because their voices would finally be heard.

“I didn’t realize how stressful it was until Gov. Zell Miller appointed another woman for the Georgia Supreme Court,” Sears said. “I went into my bathroom and just started crying. It was all coming out. I had just spent a year just holding on because of some of the things that were said and the people that wouldn’t listen to me. I would use my voice, but they would ignore me. Though there were some people who were very kind to me.”

Sears also shared what she learned about leadership during her career and how it is important to help you get where you want to be in life.

“I think women have always been leaders in this country,” Sears said. “And I want to see that continue. But I also want to see it grow. I’ve been up to Brenau a couple of times. I know we’re in good hands.”

Sears received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a Juris Doctor from Emory University Law School and an LLM from the University of Virginia, and holds honorary degrees from multiple colleges and universities. She has been named Best Lawyer in Georgia and a Georgia Super Lawyer numerous times and was Best Lawyers in America’s 2019 Lawyer of the Year (Appellate Practice) in Atlanta. Her biography, Seizing Serendipity by Rebecca Davis, was published by University of Georgia Press in 2017.

Students were also able to learn a lot from hearing Sears share stories from her life and career.

“Her storytelling captured me,” said junior English major Marian Russell. “To also hear about her struggles and the adversity she faced from her colleagues, you could see her strength as she fought and disproved many of their claims.”

Freshman health science major Hunter Golden was also inspired by Sears.

“The fact that she was the first African American woman to serve on the highest court in Georgia — wow,” Golden said. “Just hearing from such a strong woman of color who has been able to do such wonderful things really has opened my eyes to what someone who looks like me can do!”

For more information about the GOLD Speaker Series, including profiles of past speakers, visit brenau.edu/gold-speaker.