Leah Ward Sears became the first woman and youngest person appointed to Georgia’s highest court in 1992.
But she stepped down this week as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court after her brother’s suicide. She found amongst his personal effects a questionnaire he had completed in 2005 for a church class.
The very first question was a fill-in-the-blank that went like this: “At the end of my life, I’d love to be able to look back and know I’d done something about …..”
“Fathers,” Tommy wrote.
When asked to identify something that angered him that could be changed, Tommy wrote, “Re-establishment of equity and balance and sanity within the American family.”
She says her brother was born to be a father and that he grew into a good and loving one. She says he was a graduate of the Naval Academy and a Stanford-educated lawyer and that he married and fathered a little girl and boy who were the centre of his life.
She also states;
As a judge I have long held a front row seat to the wreckage left behind by our culture of disposable marriage and casual divorce that my brother so despised.
No-fault divorce was a response to a very real problem. The social and legal landscape that preceded it largely prevented casual divorce, but it often trapped people in abusive marriages. It also turned divorces into even uglier affairs than they are today, forcing people to expose in court damaging information about their children’s other parent. That system was intolerable, and we should never go back to that.
But no-fault divorce’s broad acceptance as an unquestioned social good helped usher in an era that fundamentally altered the seriousness with which marriage is viewed. It effectively ended marriage as a legal contract since either party can terminate it, with or without cause. This leaves many people struggling to remake their lives after painful divorces that they do not want. It also left many parents cut off from, or sidelined in, the lives of the children they love.
If only more Judges will speak openly about the problems. We need to find solutions. We need to help OUR fathers.
The loss of my brother has changed my life, as these losses so often do to people. This summer, after 26 years, I’m hanging up my robe as a judge to return to private practice.
I will spend some of my time teaching a course in family law at the University of Georgia Law School. And I have accepted a fellowship at the Institute of American Values in New York — a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that contributes intellectually to strengthening families and civil society in the United States and the world.
At my request, the fellowship is named after my brother. As the William Thomas Sears Distinguished Fellow in Family Law, perhaps now I can truly do “something about fathers” — a mission I’m on for Tommy and a critical calling for all of us.