Years ago, back in 1994, when I returned to Atlanta to stay, I went to a reception for Judge Leah Ward Sears, who had been selected by Governor Zell Miller in 1992 to join the Georgia Supreme Court. She was the youngest justice ever appointed, and the first African American woman to serve on the state’s highest court. It was a gathering sponsored by Marvin Arrington, now a Fulton County superior court judge, who at that time was in private practice with his partner, David Hollowell, a noted civil rights attorney. Arrington, one of the first two blacks to enter Emory University’s law school, had always reached out to Emory’s African American students and alumni, so it was no surprise to be invited to affair he held in his high rise office in downtown Atlanta for Emory Law alum Sears.
The food was great. The view from whatever floor we were on was fabulous. I was actually a little embarrassed, though, because I was starting over as a stockbroker, instead of standing at the beginning of a dazzling career like so many of my classmates. My suit was a little worn, the soles of my shoes were a little thin, I didn’t own a car—I could think of a laundry list of reasons why I could have just gone straight home that night. But it was one of my Emory classmates who insisted that I go.
He was right.
I really didn’t know who Leah Ward Sears was when I started wolfing down enough hors de oeuvres to substitute for the dinner I was missing. Later, when we all assembled in a small circle to listen to Mr. Arrington introduce her, I was struck by just how ordinary she looked. She wasn’t very tall, or ornately dressed, especially standing next to the downtown law firm associates, but she was clear eyed and earnest, with the most grateful smile in the world. After she said a few words, I shook her hand briefly and congratulated her, more intent on catching up on the gossip floating around the rest of my classmates than anything else.
I never would have thought that I’d get to hear the Leah Ward Sears biography I’d heard for the first time that night recited over and over again by news announcers and printed over and over again by newspapers. When I saw her at a battered women’s banquet ten years later, she was the Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court, with a practiced poise that had not been there that night in the ornate lobby of Arrington and Hollowell.
I think she’s ready.
The question is, can President Obama break with the unwritten rules of yesteryear and enter Sears in the confirmation process, which would potentially put two African Americans on the court at the same time?
Leah Ward Sears has been shortlisted for the Supreme Court twice now. Maybe this will be it. Or maybe the third time will be the charm.