May 10, 2009

Dark Horse

Over the past several days, every pundit and blogger under the Sun has offered an opinion on the possible list of candidates to replace Justice David Souter upon his retirement. When Souter’s decision was first announced, I posited that the candidate with the highest likelihood of appointment would be Appeals Court judge Sonia Sotomayor, and she seems to have been elevated to the top ranking… at least by the pundits. Also mentioned as high on the list were Diane Wood, another Appeals Court judge, and recently confirmed Solicitor General, Elena Kagan.

Most of the political blogs and major news outlets agree that the next Justice of the Supreme Court will be female, and there is an equally high probability that the candidate will not be Caucasian. Since it is my belief that Obama wants to make a real and lasting difference on the Court, I have suggested that the nominee will also be quite young. Using these filters (gender, ethnicity and age), all of the candidates mentioned above could potentially be eliminated. All are female, but each fails the test on either age or ethnicity.

A potential though not often mentioned possibility is Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme court, Leah Ward Sears. Chief Justice Sears was the first black woman to serve as a Superior Court Justice in Georgia, and when appointed (by Democrat Gov. Zell Miller) in 1992, she was the youngest person and the first woman ever to serve on Georgia's Supreme Court. She later became the first woman to win a contested state-wide judicial election. Since then Sears has won many elections, all bitterly contested.

Curriculum Vitae

Sears graduated from Cornell in 1976 and went on to Emory University and the University of Virginia Law Schools. She has engaged in extensive studies at the National Judicial College. Prior to her first judgeship, she was an attorney with the prestigious Atlanta law firm, Alston & Bird.

In her career Sears chaired the American Bar Association's Board of Elections, the Judicial Section Committee for the Atlanta Bar Association, and the Atlanta Bar's Minority Clerkship Program. She founded and served as the first president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, and founded the Battered Women's Project in Columbus, Georgia.

Justice Sears currently serves on the Board for Morehouse School of Medicine - Center for Child Abuse & Neglect. She sits on boards for the Visitors of Mercer Law School, the Sadie G. Mays Nursing Home, the Georgia Chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews, Atlanta’s Mission New Hope substance abuse prevention and recovery organization, Cornell University Women's Council, the steering Committee for Georgia Women's History Month, and the Children's Defense Fund's Black Community Crusade for Children. She was named as one of five finalists for dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, but later withdrew her name from consideration due to her many obligations in the Atlanta area.

Following a very divisive 2004 election, an interesting article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor illustrating many fine qualities possessed by Justice Sears. The same article made mention of the strong opposition efforts by Republicans and right wing religious activists. Upon election to head the court, even Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue would not attend Sears’ inauguration, but neither did many of her supporters. Perdue was a staunch opponent of Sears, so it makes some sense that he would find some way to show his displeasure, but one must wonder at the absence of her fellow civil rights advocates.

The reason may be found in her special, invited guest; Supreme Court Justice and childhood friend Clarence Thomas. Thomas is currently lending his support, and has said publically that he would be very glad to see Sears in the nation’s highest court. The Thomas offer of support may actually do harm to Justice Sears’ hopes for elevation to the Supreme Court, for the same reason her friends and allies avoided her inauguration.

Sotomayor Still on Top

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears has served on the Georgia Supreme Court for 17 years and has stated that she will step down at the end of the 2009 session. We will have to wait and see what happens next. Over the next four (or eight) years, Obama is likely to face this process two… or possibly three more times, so he may not let age stand in the way. Ethnicity is another thing, as I feel the President wants to ensure better balance on the Court sooner rather than later.

For this reason, Sotomayor remains ranked as top of the field. Kagen, however, who is only 49 years old, will very likely be on the highest bench of the land before Obama leaves office… and Justice Sears will, at the very least, find her name in the hat again.