Sears-Collins, Leah J. 1955–
Leah J. Sears-Collins 1955–
State supreme court justice
Judge Leah J. Sears-Collins is the first African American woman justice to serve on the State Supreme Court of Georgia. Upon her election to a regular judicial term in 1992, she also became one of the youngest high court jurists in the nation. Sears-Collins’s fast-track career has included experience as a trial lawyer, a traffic court judge, and a superior court judge—all since earning her law degree in 1980. She was appointed to the state supreme court by Georgia governor Zell Miller, but in the summer of 1992 she earned a permanent seat by winning a statewide election. Since then she has sought to bring a fresh perspective to the predominantly white, male high court.
Sears-Collins told the Atlanta Constitution that she felt her age was the most important asset she brought to the Georgia Supreme Court. “I thought it was time to diversify the court, not just by race and sex, but in age as well,” she explained. “I could be the voice of people who grew up [in the] post-civil rights era.” The justice also noted that she had not achieved such a prominent position by chance or by virtue of her race. “I’ve worked my butt off,” she said. “I come in at 7 or 7:30 every morning, and I work late whenever I have to. I don’t shy from the difficult cases; those are the ones I love.”
Sears-Collins was born June 13, 1955, in Heidelberg, Germany. Her father was a U.S. Army colonel whose work took the family all over the world; she had circled the globe twice before she turned sixteen. Throughout her academic career, Sears-Collins strove to do well in her schoolwork. Both of her parents stressed education, but the youngster seemed highly self-motivated as well. “Many nights I’d go into her room and find her asleep and take the glasses off her face and the book off her chest. I used to have to insist she go outside and play sometimes.”
As a child, Sears-Collins had a burning ambition: she wanted to be a judge. When she was only eight years old, she began ordering law school catalogues from prestigious institutions like Yale and Harvard universities. Paging through them, Sears-Collins wondered why all of the law students pictured in the catalogues were white men. Even then, she knew she would have to overcome the hurdles of gender and color in order to achieve her goals. Times changed as Sears-Collins grew, and she and her siblings were afforded educational opportunities that might well have been denied them in a previous era. Both of her brothers graduated from the U.S.
Born June 13, 1955, in Heidelberg, Germany; daughter of Thomas J. (a U.S. army officer) and Onnye Jean (Rountree) Sears; married Love Collins (a business executive), July 3, 1976; children: Addison, Brennan. Education: Cornell University, B.A. (with honors), 1976; Emory University, J.D., 1980; additional graduate studies with National Judicial College, Reno, NV.
Alston … Bird Attorneys at Law, Atlanta, GA, lawyer, 1980-85; City Court of Atlanta, traffic court judge, 1985-88; Fulton Superior Court, Atlanta, judge, 1988-92; State Supreme Court of Georgia, justice, 1992—. Founder of Battered Women’s Project of Columbus, GA.
Member: National Association of Women’s Judges, Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys (founding president), National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors.
Selected awards: NAACP award for community service.
Addresses: Office—Administrative Office of Courts, 244 Washington St., Suite 550, Atlanta, GA 30334.
Naval Academy and became pilots. Later they earned law degrees and took jobs in California.
For her part, Sears-Collins feels that she benefitted from the rootless upbringing she experienced as a military officer’s child. “When you grow up around people of all different nationalities, you learn to feel at ease with people of every kind,” she said in the Atlanta Constitution. “You really have to learn to live, work and play with people who aren’t like yourself.”
When Sears-Collins was in her teens, her family settled in Savannah, Georgia. She attended Savannah High School, where she was the first black student to make the cheerleading squad. The justice remembered that she tried out for cheerleading because she saw the color barrier as a challenge. She wanted to be the first to break it. After high school Sears-Collins entered the Ivy League as a student at Cornell University. She graduated from Cornell in 1976 with honors and was accepted to law school at Atlanta’s Emory University.
“Leah has always recognized that the civil rights movement opened doors that we, as the next generation, can charge through,” Sears-Collins’s husband told the Atlanta Constitution. “Doing that, she has often been first.” Sears-Collins earned her law degree in 1980 and landed a position with the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird. For five years she worked there as a trial lawyer. Then, at the tender age of 30, she achieved the dream she had held since childhood. She became a judge.
Her first judicial appointment was to the Atlanta Traffic Court, a position that might seem tedious and far removed from the high-stake cases of a state supreme court. But her days in traffic court gave her considerable experience in courtroom administration. She then moved on, in 1988, to Fulton County Superior Court. At 32, she was the youngest person ever elected to a superior court seat in the state of Georgia. There, Sears-Collins established herself as “a magistrate of special distinction,” according to an unsigned editorial in the Atlanta Constitution. The editorial went on to note that lawyers who pleaded cases before Sears-Collins praised “her preparation, her grasp of the law and her practical sense of how to apply it.” Often Sears-Collins worked ten-hour days and right through the weekend to keep abreast of the cases before the superior court.
One of the highly publicized cases Sears-Collins decided for the Fulton County Superior Court concerned the de-escalation of life support for a terminally ill child. When the child’s parents objected to the proposed termination of the support system on religious grounds, the judge—in a well-balanced and skillfully written decision—denied the Scottish Rite Hospital the right to withhold life support.
Early in 1992, Governor Zell Miller began interviewing candidates for a position on the Georgia Supreme Court. The court hears about 1,700 cases a year, including appeals in death penalty sentences, constitutional issues, equity cases, election contests, cases involving public revenues, divorce and alimony, wills, and titles to land. Literally the court of last resort in the state, the seven justices on the high bench also hear appeals on decisions from the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Several women were called to interview for the position, as were a few men, and Sears-Collins was among them. She was 36 at the time and felt that her chances of winning the seat were slim. Still, she made a convincing argument that diversity on the high court bench should include age as a criterion. She also could point to her service as a judge on two quite different Georgia courts. “Many people thought I was appointed by Governor Miller only because I’m black or a woman,” she told the Atlanta Constitution. “But Robert Benham (the first African American to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court) was already on the court and there were four other women that the governor could have chosen. I think the high ratings I am getting from my peers tells me I have overcome that hurdle.”
In order to retain her seat, Sears-Collins had to win a July election against a popular challenger, Clayton County Superior Court judge Stephen Boswell. Sears-Collins crossed the state to win voters, and she received the endorsement of Atlanta Journal columnist Jim Wooten. Wooten called her a “refreshing change” and “wonderfully different,” a high court judge who is “not afraid to lead.” On July 23, 1992, Sears-Collins won the close race to retain her position on the Georgia Supreme Court. Almost immediately thereafter, Ebony magazine named her among fifty black women of highest achievement in the nation.
The justice was not chosen on the basis of some static political ideology. She describes herself as a moderate who judges each case before her on its own merits. As a member of the Georgia high court, Sears-Collins will serve a six-year term at a salary near $93,000 a year. She may be re-elected or re-appointed—the method of choosing justices in Georgia is under litigation—until she is 75 years old.
Sears-Collins’s work load is phenomenal. She has never-theless managed to raise two children with the help of her husband, Love Collins, an executive helping to organize the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The Collins family lives in a large old house in Ansley Park, once among Atlanta’s most rigidly segregated neighborhoods. (The justice’s father-in-law in particular is said to enjoy strolling through the streets of a neighborhood he was once not allowed near after six in the evening.) In her rare moments of free time, Sears-Collins enjoys bikeriding and rollerblading. She has little leisure, though. Atlanta Constitution correspondent Mark Curriden described Sears-Collins as “the court’s hardest worker,” adding, “She comes to work early, stays late, is there on weekends, and takes piles of work home.”
Sears-Collins told the Atlanta Constitution that she gets angry when people try to make her a symbol because she is female and black. “I want to be known as a scholar and a hard worker,” the justice said. “I know that as a woman and as a woman of color, I’ll have to work very hard. But I think I’ve done that here. That won’t be anything new.”
Atlanta Constitution, February 18, 1992, pp. A1, D1, D4; February 24, 1992, p. A12; March 6, 1992, p. A1; July 6, 1992, p. C3; July 22, 1992, p. C3.
Atlanta Journal, July 8, 1992, p. A10.
Ebony, October 1992, p. 118.
Emerge, June 1992, p. 18.
Jet, March 9, 1992, p. 24.
Working Woman, November 1992, p. 20.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Sears-Collins, Leah J. 1955–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sears-collins-leah-j-1955
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