When Leah Ward Sears was introduced to students at Williams Elementary School on Tuesday morning, the children were told that her education had spanned more than 20 years.
That level of learning paid off in a big way for Sears, the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
She told the children that as a youth, going to school and learning were important to her, which didn’t always make her popular with her classmates.
“I loved school and I loved learning,” she said. “A lot of the kids laughed at me. I wasn’t a popular student. But you know what? I’m very popular now.”
Sears’ popularity may extend all the way to Washington, D.C., where there’s speculation that President Obama may consider her to fill an upcoming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sears, who will be retiring as Georgia’s chief justice in June, said she isn’t allowed to comment on the speculation.
“I can’t discuss it,” she said, though a couple of teachers tried to ask her about it during Sears’ 45-minute session with students. “I’m just so honored to have my name circulated with the other potential nominees.”
Instead of delivering a speech, Sears decided to interact with the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, who asked her everything from what her favorite color is (green, by the way) to what a chief justice actually does.
Sears explained to the students that the Georgia Supreme Court operates a lot differently than the court shows that students might watch on television. She said she hears about 250 cases a year and writes about 60 opinions.
“It’s fascinating what we get to do,” she said. “We sit together to hear very important cases. You see shows like ‘Judge Judy’ or ‘Judge Mathis,’ but it’s not like that at all. There are seven of us that get together to make one decision.”
Sears was appointed to the court by former Gov. Zell Miller in 1992, becoming the first woman on the court. In 2005, she became the first black woman appointed chief justice of any state Supreme Court in the country.
Destiny Combs, a fifth-grader at Williams and the Student Council president, said meeting Sears inspired her.
“It was exciting and unbelievable,” she said. “She’s a very special person for Georgia and our school.”
Combs said she wants to be a lawyer or a pediatrician when she grows up, and meeting Sears may tip the scales toward a legal career.
Shandria Griffin-Stewart, the principal of the school, said it was a great honor for the school to host Sears’ visit, since Williams was the only elementary school in Georgia the judge has visited this year. Sears reinforced many of the ideals the school teaches the students, she said.
“It’s just a phenomenal opportunity for our school,” Griffin-Stewart said.
“To have the highest judge in the state is a history-making moment for our school. It makes a real wonderful connection to what we are trying to teach, how you have to work hard to achieve what you want to achieve, how you have to make the right choices. ... It validates everything we are teaching.”
The opportunity for Sears to address the students came about after Sandy Sizemore, wife of Superior Court Judge Lamar Sizemore, arranged for Sears to visit. Sandy Sizemore is a volunteer at the school with other members of Vineville United Methodist Church, which partners with the school.
Sears emphasized to the students that with hard work, they could achieve practically anything.
“Everything worth having is worth working for,” she told them.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.