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."
Nonetheless, Sears defended Thomas's attendance and argued that it sent a message about civil discourse. "We shout and scream and yell and get very little accomplished, but you can disagree very much with the next guy and still be friends and acquaintances," she said in a National Public Radio interview soon after her swearing-in. The ceremony became an important marker in Thomas's tenuous relationship with the black community.
Andrew Young, the former civil rights leader who went on to become mayor of Atlanta, appointed Sears to her first judgeship when she was 27 and attended her induction as chief justice, sitting alongside Thomas. The conservative justice and the civil rights veteran exchanged pleasantries about each other in their speeches, and Young said he left that day with a better understanding of Thomas.
In his speech, Thomas said to Young, "On behalf of our generation, I thank you and those of your generation who had the foresight and principles and courage to make it possible for us to be here today." Then, looking at Sears, he said: "I know you will call them as you see them. Those of us who judge know that it is easy to judge when you already have your mind made up. It is hard to judge when you have to make your mind up."
After the ceremony, Sears said that one of the nicest parts of the day was seeing Thomas embraced by Young in his home state.
Sears was born in Heidelberg, Germany, to an Army aviator and a teacher, but her teenage years in the segregated South left an indelible impression. She has described herself as "stamped" and "molded" by the civil rights movement.
Thomas considered the swearing-in a solidifying moment in his friendship with Sears, said conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, a friend of Thomas's. "Justice Thomas is very selective about where he goes, and Justice Thomas does not use the word 'friendship' lightly," Williams said. "It was a show of respect for her accomplishment. It was out of respect for her friendship. He doesn't care about her politics."
Sears has said Thomas's politics are no issue for her, either. She would not comment for this article but has spoken of a fascination for the U.S. Supreme Court. Before she was 10 years old, she memorized the outlines of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education and said Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to sit as a U.S. district court judge, was her hero.
Last year, Sears said she would step down from the Georgia Supreme Court in June, when her term as chief justice expires. Married and the mother of two children, she has said she would be interested in joining a law firm with a commitment to pro bono or social justice work, or in heading a liberal arts college.
But an appointment to the Supreme Court has long been on her mind. In her early 20s, she told friends that she someday wanted to be on the Georgia Supreme Court, Taylor said. After she was named to that court in 1992, the dream became an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If she got the job, she would become the first black woman to serve on the court. How much Thomas would be willing to help her with conservatives, who might oppose her nomination, is debatable. Historically, justices have not offered such support.
But Thomas has been known to come to the aid of federal judicial candidates he admires, including Democrats, especially those whose nominations encountered trouble with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. With Sears, Thomas has gone beyond the subtle -- praising her kindness, calling her a wonderful person and describing her investiture as "a particularly special day and a day when my pride runs deep. . . . I never thought in my lifetime I would be able to witness a black woman as a chief justice of the state of Georgia Supreme Court."
The judges and lawyers who have come out of tightknit black Savannah track one another, Douglass said, and Thomas has helped many African Americans in the profession but "keeps it low-key."
"I can't read anybody's mind, and Clarence's is the last mind you'd ever want to read, but I'm pretty sure" he will help her, Douglass said. "If he didn't do it, once he got back home, the old folks would be after him."
Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.