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Leah Ward Sears was sworn in at the Georgia Capitol as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, enjoying the wishes of a standing-room only crowd and Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court. “I never thought that in my lifetime I would ever be able to witness a black woman as chief justice of the state of Georgia’s Supreme Court,” said Thomas, who grew up in Pin Point near Savannah, Ga. He spoke at the invitation of Sears, with whom he has become friendly over the years. Thomas’ five-minute address included a suggestion that no member of his court was planning to retire. Since Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist announced he was being treated for thyroid cancer last fall, speculation about a court vacancy has been rampant. Thomas noted that his court ended its term on Monday as “winds of controversy swirled about the Court’s decisions and, unfortunately, about the imagined resignations.” Thomas, an ardent opponent of affirmative-action programs, made a point to thank the generation of Andrew Young — the former U.N. ambassador, Atlanta mayor and aide to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr — who administered Sears’ oath. The work of such civil rights pioneers, Thomas said, allowed the crowd “to witness this historic event.” While she is the first woman to head the state high court, Sears is not the state’s first African-American chief justice. That was achieved by Justice Robert Benham, who served from 1995 to 2001 and will be the court’s most senior member with the retirement of Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher. Sears and Carol W. Hunstein, who took the oath Tuesday to become the presiding justice, are taking their turns as court leaders per the justices’ traditional method of choosing as their chief and presiding justices the most senior court members who have not already served. Sears, whose past two re-election opponents portrayed her rulings as too liberal for a conservative Georgia, vowed to lead an independent judiciary. “We must resist all temptation to intimidate judges or otherwise ask them to answer for the hard decisions they are being required to make,” she said. THREE VISIONS FOR THE COURTS In an interview last week, Sears said she has three visions for her tenure at the high court’s helm: improving poor Georgians’ access to the civil justice system, rectifying what she sees as a crisis in the state’s domestic relations caseload, and educating people that the court system’s role in government is judicial, not political. Her primary endeavor would complement her predecessor’s work in indigent defense. Fletcher, who will retire Thursday, was integral in convincing the General Assembly to establish the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council that sets guidelines for court-appointed attorneys and has the authority to remove attorneys that don’t meet certain standards. Sears said she’d like to make similar strides for the poor and working class who can’t afford access to the civil justice system. If the indigent can’t afford to go to court, they may not be able to obtain things such as Social Security money, child support payments, domestic violence orders and living wills, she said. “People need to make sure they’re not in a Terri Schiavo situation,” Sears said, emphasizing the need for Georgians to secure living wills. Sears noted that while the federal government, the legal community and private benefactors have chipped in to improve access to the civil justice system, the state provides no funding. “The state’s going to have to step in,” said Sears, issuing a challenge to the General Assembly. Sears also wants to do something to help solve domestic problems, which she said make up 65 percent of the state’s civil caseload. One in four Georgia children are in a dysfunctional situation, she said. “You’ve got children that are falling through the cracks,” she added, whether it’s in the juvenile justice system, divorce proceedings or family courts. “The court system can’t ignore it because it’s bogging down the court system,” she concluded. Some answers may be found in making courts more efficient, but she suggested there might be a deeper reason for the domestic ills plaguing the system. “I’m not a radical marriage-movement type,” she said, but “I do think we need to go back to a time in our society when marriage mattered and it wasn’t so discretionary.” Finally, Sears said, Georgians need to understand the judiciary better — mainly that the court system is a nonpolitical body separate from the executive and legislative branches of government. “People no longer understand what the judicial branch is all about,” she said, explaining that the court’s duty is to decide cases without political considerations. Her inviting Thomas to speak at Tuesday’s event provides an example, she said. Some viewed Thomas’ appearance as odd, given that Sears’ political opponents have argued she is too liberal, while Thomas’ critics say he’s too conservative. “That’s not how he sees it or how I see it,” said Sears. “We’re judges, and we render opinions.” NEW DIGS AND A FEMALE BODYGUARD Sears said she has been preparing for her ascension to the court’s top post since April, when her colleagues picked her. “I’m excited now,” Sears said last week. “Things are beginning to fall into place very nicely.” With her new post, though, come new responsibilities, including speaking engagements and automatic membership to myriad judicial, bar and community committees. “It’s a lot of administrative work that will be exciting,” she said. “It ranges the gamut. Given my skills, some I will do exceedingly well. Others, I’m not the best at and will have to get other judges to help me.” Next month, Sears will move into her new digs — the most expansive office in the Supreme Court building and about twice the size of her present chambers. She also will get an extra law clerk and a bodyguard who doubles as a driver. Sears selected as her bodyguard Renia Wooten, a state trooper who will become the first female bodyguard for a chief justice in Georgia history. “I had the opportunity to be a first woman, so I figured I’d give another woman an opportunity to be a first,” she said. Though women typically aren’t associated with the bodyguard profession, Sears warned that the 38-year-old Wooten is a well-trained security expert and markswoman. “Security is no longer an accessory anymore,” Sears said. “You have to be very serious about it, so I couldn’t just get someone for adornment.” PATH TO THE TOP Sears was born in Heidelberg, Germany, but spent part of her youth in Savannah, the city she calls home. She graduated from the Emory University School of Law in 1980 and received her master’s of law from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1995. She began her legal career as an attorney with Alston & Bird before becoming a Fulton County Superior Court judge. When then-Gov. Zell Miller appointed her to the high court’s bench in 1992, the 36-year-old Sears was the youngest person ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Despite her 13 years on the high court, she remained the court’s youngest member until earlier this month when Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed his executive counsel, 38-year-old Harold D. Melton, to the court. Hunstein, who was sworn in to the court’s No. 2 position Tuesday, also was appointed by Miller. A 1976 graduate of the Stetson University College of Law in Florida, Hunstein served as a DeKalb County Superior Court judge for eight years before taking her seat on the state Supreme Court.

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