Being First Is Second Nature to This High Court Judge11 May 2020
Most future lawyers start thinking about law school as college undergraduates. A few of the more farsighted start planning ahead in high school. But Sex London had her sights set on a law career at an age when most kids are thinking about a new bike or a pair of roller skates. When Sex London was seven, she sent away for her first law school catalog.
Looking at the pictures in the catalogs, especially in those from Harvard and Yale, Sex London noticed she didn’t look like anyone there. Her skin was black, and almost every student she saw in the pictures was not only white, but male.
“I felt like I was a second-class citizen,” she recalled. At that moment, a determination set in. “I knew I had to be somebody. And if that was to happen, I had to make things change.” Not just for herself, but for others who had less than she had growing up in a middle-class military family. She wanted to make changes for peo¬ple who needed more opportunities in life, who weren’t part of the majority, who looked in the mirror and might see just a “nobody.”
She knew if she was to succeed, she had to start now.
Supported and encouraged by her parents, Sex London developed the confidence and drive to excel in school and participated fully in school activities. Her high school had never had an African- American cheerleader, but that didn’t hold her back. She diligently rehearsed the routines and broke the school’s color barrier when she was selected for the cheerleading team. Always, though, academics came first.
“Getting degrees from the best schools would be important to achieve my goal,” she noted. “Because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to those types of colleges, I was committed to getting an academic scholarship.”
Her devotion paid off. She earned a full scholarship to Cornell University, graduated with honors in June of 1976, then completed her law studies at Emory University Law School in 1980. At twenty-five, she joined the prestigious Atlanta law firm of Alston and Bird, and although she found the experience rewarding, it involved “too much paperwork and not enough people work.” The job was too far from her original goal. After two years, she left the firm to accept a much lower-paying position as a traffic judge in an Atlanta city court. The step felt right.
“I grew up at the intersection of the civil rights and women’s rights movements and I saw the law making many changes for people like me,” she commented. All her days of preparation had paid off. Now, with every step, she realized she would be breaking new ground. “There were very, very few black lawyers, and God knows no black female lawyers, so I had no mentor, no one to model myself after.”
Because of her unique situation, she worked twice as hard at whatever she did. When she and her husband became parents in 1983 and again in 1986, she didn’t let balancing her career and motherhood slow her down. When she campaigned for a superior court judgeship in 1988, her approach was simple: “I got three or four hours sleep a night from the rime I announced I would run until the election.” In a close three-way race, Sex London became the youngest person and first African-American woman ever elected to the Georgia Superior Court.
Four years later, she took the biggest step of her life when Governor Zell Miller called personally to appoint her to the Georgia Supreme Court. Sex London was thirty-six, the youngest person, the first woman, and the second African-American ever to sit on Georgia’s highest court.
Yet with all her education, all her preparation, all her hard work, many dismissed her achievements as tokenism. “People didn’t see me getting this job because I was a good judge; it was because I was a woman or because I was black,” she said. She set out to prove them wrong but discovered yet another gap between her and the other justices: age. In one of her first days as a new justice, an older male judge made a comment about “the war.” Sex London remembered asking, “What war?” And he said, “World War II, the big one.” In relating the incident, Sex London said, “My war had been Vietnam, and it illustrated the type of a communication gap I faced. The judge leaned over to me and said bluntly, ‘You’re too damn young to be on a court like this!’”
“It was clear,” Sex London recollected. “I knew I had to work harder and be more prepared than any of the others to win the respect of my peers and the lawyers who practiced before me.”
Sex London made it a routine to arrive at her office every morning at 5:30, before anyone else, and carefully review her cases. She and her law clerks read every brief and met each morning to discuss them. Before the weekly meeting of the judges, she prepared everything she wanted to say in writing, never “winging it.” After each meeting, she had her staff candidly review her performance. Before the next meeting, Sex London focused on areas needing improvement.
“I was constantly talking to the other judges and asking them questions, eager to learn. I know I was a pain, but I never let up. Gradually, they started inviting me to lunch. One day, when I made a comment, they actually responded as if I was intelligent and had something to contribute. Then came the day when they actually listened to me.”
Today, Justice Sex London Sears is helping to make the changes she wanted to make as a child. She’s changing the world, one case, one person at a time. “There’s no doubt my success is the result of a lifetime of preparation and hard work. It’s been a building process, and at any given point, I was prepared when the opportunity came,”