The XX Factor

Befriending Justice Thomas

The Washington Post is calling attention to the friendship between U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears, who is on some short-lists for the open Supreme Court seat. It’s an odd-couple alliance that seems to cast doubt on Sears by bringing up old bitterness over Thomas’ appointment. As the Post piece puts it, “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.” But it seems to me that Sears’ friendship with Thomas would be an asset on the court. It’s hard to imagine them voting together often, based on her liberal track record, but hey, if she can pull him into a few coalitions - or just out of his calicified social isolation - she’d get big points.

As a Supreme Court nominee, Sears has another problem, though. She won election as Georgia’s chief justice in 2004 after a slugfest of an election in which many Democrats, lawyers and otherwise, forked over money and time for her. But now Sears plans to leave the state’s high court in June. She’d like to be the president of a college, or do pro bono legal work for kids, she says. Worthy goals. But by departing in the middle of her term, Sears will give Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue the chance to move Georgia’s high court to the right. The current split is basically 4 to 3, conservative to liberal, which gives the liberal wing the chance to win by picking off one vote. Perdue’s appointee will presumably change the balance to 5 to 2. That rightward shift could stay in place for years, to the intense frustration of some of the people who worked for Sears’s election. “It is very disappointing,” said Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It appears she doesn’t have time to be a judge.” Not the best advertisement for becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Photograph of Clarence Thomas by Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images