- Justice Leah Ward Sears: Seizing Serendipity by Rebecca Shriver Davis
Justice Leah Ward Sears: Seizing Serendipity is a wide-ranging biography of one of the turn of the twenty-first century's most fascinating jurists. While Leah Ward Sears has had a career that leaps straight from the pages of an American history book, this biography is largely a missed opportunity to discuss critically the issues of race, gender, politics, justice, civil rights, voting rights, and the [End Page 234] importance of the law to the advancement and protection of these identities and issues. Given the current political climate, such a focus would have given the book a way to insert itself into the popular imaginary rather than merely recounting the singularity of Sears's experiences. Perhaps because Sears is still active and a part of the fashioning of her own narrative, author Rebecca Shriver Davis never delves very deeply into any of these areas or into Sears's thinking on these subjects. Or maybe it is the author's deep admiration of her subject, albeit understandable, that prevents her from offering anything approaching a complicated depiction of Sears. Whatever the case, though the details of Sears's life are fascinating, what is shared in the book appears less like a biography and more like a carefully curated vision of Justice Sears.
Sears's ability to work with colleagues along the ideological spectrum and her formidable legal talents led to her ascension to the bench as a relatively young jurist. She eventually became the first black woman elected to the Georgia Supreme Court, and later she became chief justice of that same court. Though Sears's accomplishments are singular and amazing, they are not the most interesting part of the book. What makes this story compelling are the small details that give some sense of Sears as a person. She was naked in her ambition to become a successful attorney, judge, and chief justice. She loves the law in a deep and abiding way, and the pleasure she derives from that profession is individually hers. I applaud the biography for capturing these sentiments. Nevertheless, the biography has significant missteps.
Most notably, the discussion of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas proceedings receives relatively short shrift. Sears, a close friend of Justice Thomas, watched the proceedings and characterized them as "progress" (p. 77). I am unsure what about this moment represented progress to Sears, but it is an odd sentiment for a situation where a black woman was questioned, and humiliated, by a panel of white men, while a black man was accused of such despicable acts. Sears did say that Hill's testimony changed the legal profession, but she stopped short of offering any commentary on Justice Thomas or on workplace harassment, though she is a contemporary of both Hill and Thomas. Although Davis could not have foreseen the contentious appointment of U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, this section was a missed opportunity to explore the gender dynamics of the legal profession. Had something along those lines been offered here, the book would have become more relevant to the contemporary moment.
Likewise, much of the text reads like a handbook on respectability politics, which contributes to its uneven nature. While I understand this work is a biography, the lack of pushback or of a structural critique of racism is deeply disheartening. What is worse, the uncomplicated acceptance of this destructive politics by Sears, and by extension, the author, makes this book a more difficult read. When reminiscing on being selected by a teacher to read aloud, Sears saw it as a point of pride to say, "I don't speak the vernacular; they call it Ebonics now" (p. 16). Sears seemed to take pleasure in the fact that she was not perceived as sounding black in a way that made her exceptional. This example is just one of the many ways the text is not reflexive about its racial politics.
This kind of lightweight trafficking in stereotypes of...