Friendship With Conservative Thomas Complicates Supreme Court Chances for Georgia's Sears

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2006, file photo Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears emphasizes her point as she delivers the annual State of the Judiciary to a joint session of the legislature at the Capitol in Atlanta.
FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2006, file photo Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears emphasizes her point as she delivers the annual State of the Judiciary to a joint session of the legislature at the Capitol in Atlanta. (Ric Feld - AP)
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

One day in the early 1990s, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas telephoned Leah Ward Sears to introduce himself. She was a rising star in Georgia's legal community, a relatively liberal black woman on the state's conservative Supreme Court. Thomas had read about political attacks against Sears and called to say he didn't like it.

"It affected her that he would take the time to comfort her in that situation," said Bernard Taylor, an Atlanta lawyer and longtime friend of Sears, now chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and a potential nominee to replace retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. "They're still friends."

Many years after that phone call, the friendship that has endured makes for one of the more intriguing subplots of President Obama's upcoming decision. In naming Souter's replacement, Obama is likely to choose a liberal jurist. Some in the civil rights community are hoping that person will be an African American, such as Sears, to soothe the lingering bitterness over the appointment of Thomas, a conservative who is the court's only black justice.

But if the choice does turn out to be Sears, the nation's first black president would be nominating someone whose closest friend on the court is the very person civil rights activists have accused of failing to represent African Americans' interests.

Sears's relationship with Thomas is anchored in their home towns in southeastern Georgia and the rough roads they both took to the top levels of the American judiciary. Sears, 53, has been called a liberal, activist judge by conservatives who ran hard against her. Thomas, 60, has been accused by African Americans of betraying them with his conservative views. They have both spent their careers beating back critics.

"He holds her in the highest respect," said Orion Douglass, a judge from Savannah who serves on the State Court of Glynn County and has known Thomas and Sears since they were youngsters.

Sears grew up in Savannah. Thomas was reared 11 miles away in Pin Point. Her family was middle class; his, poor. But in those days, families knew families, Douglass said. Thomas and Sears had mutual friends but did not befriend each other until he made the call. Theirs is one of the few lasting bonds Thomas has in the black legal community because his conservative opinions on issues such as voting rights, affirmative action and the power of the federal government to correct injustices have left him alienated by many.

The old lions of the civil rights movement in Georgia and elsewhere have never accepted Thomas as heir to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall's seat and legacy. Since joining the court in 1991, Thomas has been the subject of their protests, distrust and disparagement. They want Obama to select a black justice who is more progressive.

Sears, who was the first black woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court, has been more popular with them. She calls herself a "moderate with a progressive streak," and during her 17 years on the Georgia Supreme Court, she has sided with opinions that overturned the state's anti-sodomy law, which targeted gays, and criticized use of the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment, rulings popular with the civil rights community.

Four years ago, Thomas was about the only conservative celebrating her rise to chief justice along with Atlanta's cadre of civil rights veterans, and it made for some discomfort. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, the longtime leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, quickly called Sears to congratulate her but also let her know that he would not attend her swearing-in because Thomas would be there.

"I was a little disappointed," Lowery said.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, also begged off. "I would have been a hypocrite to go up there, skin and grin, smile and shake hands," he said. His deep disdain for Thomas trumped pride in Sears's accomplishment. "[I] don't think we have any black people on the Supreme Court. It's not just the pigmentation of skin. It is philosophy, and even though Justice Thomas has our skin, he really does not vote the way African Americans would have him vote."

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