Sears taking marriage message to New York

Chief Justice took on issue when she saw domestic cases dominate dockets

AS LEAH WARD SEARS prepared for a lecture she will give this week on her “strengthening marriage” initiative, organizers of the New York University School of Law event said alumini had a question.

Was her speech about gay marriage?

Sears, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, is familiar with the issue; re-election challengers in 1998 and 2004 used some of her writings to paint her as a gay rights candidate. But in her speech, the only thing she planned to say about gay marriage was that her initiative is not about gay marriage.

Sears acknowledged last week that some people may think she’s taken on the mantle of encouraging marriage and two-parent families for political reasons.

“I’m not in it for a political thing at all,” she said in an interview in her chambers, “because I really care about this.”

Besides, she added, she’s taken some hits for embracing the issue of encouraging marriage. “It’s become politically correct not to talk about family dysfunction,” she said.

Sears said she has had trouble getting people to take her work seriously.

When she first became chief in 2005, Sears started making comments on the issue but sensed the media viewed it as something light, so she pulled back.

The results of her subsequent behind-the-scenes efforts were the creation of a court Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law last summer and the drafting of a white paper on the breakdown of families and the ensuing cost to the state.

Sears said that she began looking at the issue when, as part of her assessment process upon becoming chief, she examined caseload statistics. According to the white paper, 65 percent of all civil cases heard at the superior court level in Georgia involve issues regarding families and children—outnumbering not only all other civil cases but all criminal cases, as well.

But she’s not just talking about costs to the state resulting from divorce. She highlights statistics on out-of-wedlock births, particularly among the black population. She calls marriage “one of the best anti-poverty programs we have going.”

Now she’s taking what she says is a serious message to a serious audience. Thursday night, she’ll be the speaker at the annual Justice William J. Brennan Jr. lecture on state courts and social justice at NYU.

Acting like a lawyer preparing for oral argument, Sears said she planned to give her speech the moot-court treatment—getting her law clerks to ask tough questions so she can refine the speech if her message is not getting through.

Sears said that after the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by her entitled “A Case for Strengthening Marriage” last October, she got negative feedback from “northeastern” professors. Some people thought she was trying to make things more “Ozzie and Harriet,” she said.

Not so, she said. “I tell people we’re not trying to take families back to the ’50s” such that women can’t get divorced.

Sears, who has been divorced and is remarried, is careful to say she’s not judging those whose marriages may have failed and wants to encourage not marriage at any price but healthy, stable marriages. “I’m not a Cro-Magnon,” she said. “I don’t want to condemn anybody … but we’ve gone too far in the other direction.”

She’s ready with a quick answer to anyone who might have qualms about her efforts on the grounds that it’s more government meddling in intimate relationships: “That would be fine if they didn’t ask [the government] to meddle in their lives when things go bust … we just want to encourage them to make it healthy,” she said.

There’s also a note in the commission white paper indicating a sensitivity toward domestic violence issues, saying the commission “in no way seeks to encourage abusive or other unhealthy relationships.”

“I say you ought to run [if] you find yourself in a relationship where there’s abuse or addiction,” she said.

Sears said she’s limited in what she can do because of the branch of government in which she sits. For example, Sears doesn’t have a position on waiting periods for no-fault divorce—“other than it would be nice if they were studied” by the Legislature or her group.

But she said the commission can highlight the problems and educate lawyers and judges. Officially, the commission’s goals as set forth in the white paper are to identify steps the judicial system could take to increase the proportion of children being raised by their married mothers and fathers, reduce the statewide domestic relations caseload, establish measurements for whether goals for child abuse, neglect and juvenile delinquency cases are being met, improve the quality of legal representation in juvenile court cases and expedite the appeals process for termination of parental rights matters.

The commission is comprised of more than 30 judges, professors, lawyers, business people, legislators and other state officials. Sears said the commission already has met and will spend its first six months learning about the issues. It’s set to meet again March 16.

Randall M. Kessler, an Atlanta family lawyer not on the commission, said good family law practitioners want people to get along, and Sears is on the right track with her idea of promoting education and counseling.

“But,” he said, “some marriages just aren’t meant to be.”