SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
DAVID ABRAHAMS: Hello, and good evening, everybody. My name is David Abrahams, and I'd like to welcome everybody and say thank you very much for attending this event. This has been an event that we've been looking forward to for a few years to be honest. We want to give our sincere thanks to Justice Sears for agreeing to talk this evening. I'm not going to belabor you with a lot of talk. But again, you know, I want to say thank you.
And you know, one of the things that I think this event symbolizes is the spirit of cooperation. And just to demonstrate just how many people came together to make this happen, I want to thank the Cornell Atlanta Alumni Association, the Cornell Black Alumni Association, College of Human Ecology, the Law School, the Law Association, the Cornell University minority alumni programs, and Cornell's own Southeast Regional Office for making this happen.
If any of the committee members are here, I'd ask them to stand up. Because without their hard work, this event would not have taken place either. So if you're on the committee, please stand.
You know, I think these are exciting times right now in the United States. You can hardly turn on the television without seeing something about what's going on with the presidential primaries. And one of the, I would say, dominant themes is change, that you hear from the candidates. Well, the same thing is true about Cornell. I think you can hardly walk around the university-- for those that have been back up there-- without seeing change all over the campus. And we have a new president that is very engaging with the students. We've embarked on this $4 billion capital fund campaign.
But in addition to that, I think one of the themes for us that has come out of not only change at Cornell, but just one of collaboration. We witnessed this by the number of organizations that came together to make this happen. And we also look at some of the things that are going on on the university itself. We have a collaboration between the medical school and the Cornell University campus for the faculty, where there is seed money that's been made available for faculty to work together. We have a collaboration with ILR and Human Ecology in doing studies. We have additional collaborations that are going on between Human Ecology and the law school, where we have a combined degree that's there.
But one of the things that I'm about to do is introduce a gentleman that's not unfamiliar with change, as well as being on the forefront of collaboration. And that's Dr. Charles Brainerd, who is currently, right now, the head of Human Ecology.
CHARLES BRAINERD: I'm head of the law, psychology, and human development program.
DAVID ABRAHAMS: OK, thank you. And I'm not going to belabor at that point too much, but I want to welcome him up here, because he will be doing the introductions from this point on. And if we could have round of applause for Dr. Brainerd.
CHARLES BRAINERD: Before I begin my remarks, I'm supposed to announce two things. First thing-- the proceedings are being filmed and digitized tonight, and they're going to be available, just for a couple of mouse clicks, on the Cornell website. And what's the link? Cornell--
SPEAKER 2: Human.cornell.edu. So it's the human ecology website.
CHARLES BRAINERD: The Human Ecology website, and you should be able to find it. And then, secondly, in the question-and-answer period for Justice Sears afterwards, please use the microphones. There's one there. And is there one over here? OK, thank you.
Well, having said that, good evening to all of you, and fellow Cornellians. Thank you all for coming. As you heard, my name is Chuck Brainerd, and I'm a professor in the College of Human Ecology. I'm here this evening in my capacity as head of Cornell's program in law, psychology, and human development.
And I'm here to do a couple of very pleasant things. The first thing is to introduce to our distinguished guest, the Honorable Leah Ward Sears. And second, I'm also here to say a few brief words about what we're doing up at Cornell in law, psychology, and human development.
Taking my first pleasant task first, Leah Ward Sears is, as you know, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. But let's begin a bit further back. She was born in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father was a colonel in the United States Army, and was stationed there at the time. She's a fellow Cornellian, of course, having graduated from our College of Human Ecology.
To say that her undergraduate career was illustrious was a bit of an understatement. The one thing I want to say about it is that she was tapped for membership and Quill and Dagger as a senior. That's the highest extracurricular scholastic honor that's within the reach of Cornell undergraduates. Along with Yale Skull and Crossbones, it's probably the most prominent honorary society of its type in American higher education.
Since leaving Cornell, Judge Sears' career has been even more illustrious. First, she went to law school, completing her JD here at Emory University. And later she completed a master's of law at University of Virginia. and an honorary doctor of laws has been conferred on her by Morehouse College.
After law school, Judge Sears did trial work with the firm of Alston & Bird before being appointed to the bench by Mayor Andrew Young. In 1988, she was the very first African-American woman in the state of Georgia to become a Superior Court judge. Four years later, Judge Sears's accomplishments on the bench were recognized by Governor Zell Miller, who appointed her to the Georgia Supreme Court.
When she was sworn in, Judge Sears became the Supreme Court's first woman justice, and also the youngest justice to sit on the court. In 2005, Judge Sears was elevated to chief justice, becoming the only African-American woman chief justice in the United States.
Throughout her career, Judge Sears' service to both the legal profession and the community has been vast. For instance, she's chaired the American Bar Association's Board of Elections, the judicial section of the Atlanta Bar Association, DeKalb County's Alimony and Support Unit Committee, Probation Committee, and Domestic Violence Task Force, and the Atlanta Bar's Minority Clerkship Program. Judge Sears serves on Cornell's Women's Council and Morehouse College's Board of Directors, and on the Morehouse School of Medicine's Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, on the Board of Visitors of Mercer Law School, and on the board of of Mission New Hope. She also founded the Columbus Georgia Battered Women's Project.
Now, not surprisingly, the honors that Judge Sears has received for her judicial and public service are numerous. Here are just a few examples. The Atlanta YMCA has named her one of its Outstanding Women of Achievement, and she was named one of the 100 most influential Georgians by Georgia Trend magazine. She has received the American Bar Association's Margaret Brent Award, which honors women lawyers of unusual achievement. And she has received the Excellence in Public Service Award of the Georgia Coalition of Black Women. Judge Sears is also a former Rosalynn Carter Honorary Fellow in Public Policy at Emory University's Institute on Women's Studies.
Well, turning to my second pleasant task, saying a word or two about Cornell's program in law, psychology, and human development. There are deep parallels, actually, between what we do in this program and some of Judge Sears' work. In both her scholarly work and her activities on the court, Judge Sears is widely known as an articulate authority on issues that affect children and families, such as the importance of marriage, problems of adolescent pregnancy, problems of child health, the impact of divorce on children, and a number of related issues. Speaking as a researcher, what has impressed me most is I've studied some of Judge Sears's statements on these issues is that she has founded her views squarely on the best available science.
In the law, psychology, and human development program, we're in the business of providing the data on which Judge Sears relies, and we're in the business of training scientists who know how to conduct the necessary research. This is part of a larger movement in the law that's known as empirical law, which aims to underpin legal practice with the very best research on human behavior and on human social institutions.
Like Judge Sears, many of us at Cornell have a particular interest in research that focuses on the problems that confront children and families. Indeed, our faculty members have long been recognized as world leaders in such research. However, research on how all this affects the law-- for instance, research on the special qualities of child witnesses, or on how criminal prosecutions affect families-- is quite new, and there is a desperate need to train the first generation of scientists who will devote their lives to such research.
That is what we've come together to do in the law, psychology, and human development program. Because the field is so new, so is our program. We're just in our infancy. But a few years down the road, we trust that you'll be hearing great things about our graduates and their research programs, things that will make you proud-- all over again-- of being from Cornell.
Well, I've talked quite long enough. And you're no doubt anxious for the main course. So without further ado, let's give a warm Cornell welcome to Chief Justice Leah Ward Shears.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Oh, thank you very much, Professor Brainerd, for that very warm and gracious introduction. Your program sounds really exciting. I'm not sure-- it's so cutting edge. You know, there are seven people on our court. And some of the judges are a little more stuck in their ways than other judges. And I wonder how that would be received today. But you're certainly on the cutting edge. And I'm very curious about the program. Because as you've seen from the work that I've done, that's almost all that I've tried to do when I wasn't just reading cases. So I applaud you.
Are there other-- is this a budding area in other schools, or is Cornell leading the way?
CHARLES BRAINERD: Cornell is really the leader.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: That's fantastic. As it is in so many other areas. And that's why I'm so proud to be a graduate.
Well, good evening to you all, and thank you very much for asking me to address you this evening. Before I get started, I want to give a special thanks to Dr. David Abrahams, and to Karen Weiss for organizing this wonderful event. Although we are far, far, far from Ithaca, I must say I see so many familiar faces here tonight. It's almost a shock. Because it is just, what, March, and its fairly warm outside. And it's not like it is in Ithaca, I would imagine. So I still feel like I'm a little bit back on campus here.
I did graduate from Cornell with a degree in human development and family studies. The foundation I received from that course of study has in many ways influenced my interest in today's topic. So I'm going to get into the future of marriage, which is something that I've used the power base that I have as the Chief Justice of Georgia to weave something I've been fascinated with for a long time. And then I'll be glad to open it up for questions, and we can just chat.
You know, in the last 25 years that I've had the honor to serve as a jurist in Georgia's judicial system, I have learned that, in a large and growing parts of our society today, children have guns, and they have drugs, and they are having babies. In large parts of our society, children are lonely, they are abandoned, and they are insufficiently educated, even insufficiently clothed and fed. And in large parts of our society today, too many children are being born to single and often but not always poor women with little if any input from the men who fathered them.
Since I left Cornell many years ago, we have created a world that is not particularly hospitable to children, and that diminishes the role of men as fathers. Now, as I thought of this phenomenon, and my belief that the weakening institution of marriage is largely responsible for many of these ills I wondered whether, in the years since I graduated, I have just become old and old-fashioned about parenting, about children, and about marriage. Maybe so. But I've also learned that when you are elected to do a job, as I have been, and when that job involved family matters, as my job certainly does every day, 24/7 sometimes, you have a solemn duty and maybe even a moral imperative not to be silent, but to speak the truth to people, to speak the truth as I see it. And so that's what I'm doing.
So let's just start with the basics. Fragmenting families are flooding our court dockets. Since I became a trial judge in 1989 on the Fulton County Superior Court, the percentage of domestic relations cases has risen sharply those cases now account for 65% of all civil cases in Georgia at the Superior Court level. Last year, more than 14,000 children were in the care of the Georgia Division of Family and Children's Services, and nearly 24,000 were admitted to a youth detention center. One out of every four Georgia children under age 18 years old right now has a case with the Office of Child Support Enforcement.
Now, nationwide, 70% of juvenile delinquents come from single-parent homes, and the Census Bureau reports that the percentage of Georgia Families with children living below the poverty level jumps from under 18% to almost 43% if there is no father present in the household. Moreover, a new study, to be published in April, will show that the cost of divorce and unwed childbearing alone costs the state of Georgia more than $1 billion a year-- $1 billion a year.
These figures are typical of what is happening throughout the nation. For judges, they represent a difficult workload. For families, they represent an astonishing level of necessary but intrusive government oversight. For government also they represent a mountain of resources that could be used for other purposes. But for children, these statistics are a tragedy.
Last year, for the first time in history, it was reported that less than half of US households were headed by married couples. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that almost 36% of all births are the result of unmarried childbearing these days. That's 70% of the African-American community, the highest percentage ever recorded. In family law, as in the rest of American society today, there is an intensifying debate about how we should respond to this kind of news.
Should law and society actively seek ways to support marriage? Or should family law strive to be marriage-neutral by providing more rights and benefits to alternatives to marriage, such as cohabitation and single parenthood? Some family law experts argue that our most pressing need is to find ways to equally support a wide variety of family forms. For example, the respected American Law Institute-- that's ALI-- an organization of judges, lawyers, and legal scholars of which I am a member; this organization drafts model laws and other proposals for legal reform-- has proposed a new set of law that promotes a family diversity model. Some of the Institute's scholars argue that family law should focus less on trying to channel people into marriage, and more on being fair to people in different relationships. In other words, that family law should take families as it finds them.
Now, I'm not a law professor, but from my position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, a family law that fails to encourage marriage ignores the empirical facts that marriage has long now been associated with an impressively broad array of positive outcomes for children and for adults alike. Experts now who contend that we need to move beyond marriage say that they are only responding to the facts on the ground. But here is one major fact that I think that they are neglecting, and that is this one. High rates of non-marital child-rearing is hurting our children. For example, studies have consistently shown that children raised outside of marriage suffer disproportionately from physical and mental illness. They are more likely to drop out of school and abuse drugs or alcohol. More of them engage in violence, or suffer it in their own homes. They are less likely to attend college.
Studies also show that children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabitating relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. Of course many hardworking single parents do an excellent job of raising children, and they need and deserve our support as well. Take it from me, a woman who divorced herself over 10 years ago, and reared two children for four years on my own, and remarried. So I'm in a blended family as well. But I believe that building a viable, healthy marriage culture in America is still the best thing we can do for our children. And I am not alone.
For example, in the recently published book Reconceiving the Family, 24 family law scholars, including two other state supreme court chief justices, are critical of the American Law Institute's report. And an institute that I'm on the board of directors of, the Institute for American Values-- it's a think tank in New York City-- recently published a statement signed by over 30 family law scholars that can concluded that a prime goal of family law should be to identify new ways to support marriage as a social institution, so that each year more and more children are protected by being raised within the marital unions of their parents.
To that end, a couple of years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court, under my leadership, established a commission. The commission is on children, marriage, and family law, with an important goal, and that is to find ways to reduce unnecessary divorce and unmarried childbearing. As a judge, I am often frustrated that I must work within a system designed only to pick up the pieces after families have fallen apart or failed to come together, to the detriment of their children. Faced with the choice of putting our resources in the playpen or in the state pen, I've always thought that the former was the wiser choice. We must work to prevent family fragmentation because the consequences for our children and for our society are quite grave.
If we look to solutions, I believe that we will find them. What we do not yet know how to accomplish, we must learn how to accomplish. I think that Americans have always believed that problems, no matter how difficult, should be addressed and not merely endured. Whether it is racism, or crime, or poverty, Americans-- I always thought-- believe that we can find ways to make a difference. Accepting the decline of marriage as inevitable means giving up on far too many of our children. And I personally believe that they deserve better than that.
So with that, these are my remarks, and I'll just open it up for anything you have to say. Thank you.
Normally I'd walk out, and walk around, and come back here. But this is being videotaped, so I'm told I need to stay kind of behind--
I can be more flexible. But are there any questions on anything? My years at Cornell, my family, my children that I'm still trying to get up-- they're 14 and 21-- anything at all, I'm open. Yes, sir.
AUDIENCE: This must have been designed by somebody in the government. Leah, I want to thank you very much for your comments. I heard your rotary 10 years ago. And just to remind the Cornell-- I'm 61, so I'm one of the fossils in the audience here. I went to a wonderful Cornell alumni thing down at the Commerce Club, and if I'm not mistaken, a lawyer from the southern [INAUDIBLE] and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had something to do with Brown v. Education or one of those big decisions in the south.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Tuttle? Probably Elbert Tuttle.
AUDIENCE: Yes, Tuttle, right. Just for everybody to know.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I don't know if it was Brown, but there were a lot of cases that the whole-- they really did a lot.
AUDIENCE: Well, I came to Cornell on a Greyhound bus. And I went there as an engineering student. And I got off, and I had my M card. And five or four years later I got off and went to med school. But I started as an engineer. And the dean said, two or three of you aren't going to be here two years from now. And sure enough, two years, and now I was in the art school doing my pre-med.
But when I left Cornell and started traveling and whatnot later in life, I was amazed at how Cornell was everywhere in the world. I mean, you go to a hotel down there at Peter Island in the Caribbean, and the hotel lady is from Cornell. Read about the Indian rice crop that got re-evaluated, and same with all the folks in India came out of the Ag school. And you look at SDS, and some of that "Star Wars" stuff was our engineering.
So I went back for my 40th, and they were talking about nanotechnology. So it's been a-- you know, they're bringing these things together.
OK, to get to your thing about marriage. I'm not ashamed to say I'm a Republican in a red state. And I'm a retired physician. And I think this thing of marriage is a big thing. It gets glossed over by the media. You know, media sells with sex, and violence, and all that jazz, but this recent thing about SDS and kids, with 50% girls, it's a big number. And as a retired physician, we got to be-- what are we doing to do this? I mean, are we going to have to fine or tax males for leaving their seed behind? Are we going to have to put the birth control in the orange juice? I mean--
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: [CHUCKLES]
AUDIENCE: I'm serious. I'm serious. I mean, as a retired physician, I've said it for a long time, put birth control for age 15 to 35, and Advil for 35 to 55, and Elavil for 65 and on. I mean, you know, buy your orange juice, vitamin D and all the stuff you need. But I mean, we need to be serious about this. It gets into the-- you know, the ethnic thing, it gets into the cultural thing, it gets into the finances, abortion, and the whole nine yards. But I think, as Cornellians, my original comments were, we've done so much, we've crossed so many boundaries. And I really enjoyed the Mosaic thing here several months ago. I think that your minority groups at Cornell that are trying to do things that other universes aren't doing. I'm proud of the university for doing that.
But what are the practical things we can do? And don't be afraid to say them. I think a lot of us are trying to be politically correct, and we just won't say things. And we to stand up and be heard. I mean, there are things need to be done. If you're Murphy Brown, you want to have six kids at $10 million a year, fine. Have six kids. But if you're--
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: No, I wouldn't even agree with that.
AUDIENCE: If you're a working gal with $20,000 a year, you can't do it.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well, no, I don't agree with that. I've been very careful. Because I don't think it's any better for-- because, you know, they're real racial. And I don't think it's any better for a white woman who is doing well to make that choice than a poor black woman to make that choice. Because I believe very strongly that fathers count. And to make-- just because you have money-- the father should be in the home.
AUDIENCE: I agree.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: And Murphy's-- I don't remember who fathered Murphy Brown's kids. What, this is the '80s. But to me, it's not just a money thing. It's men count, women count, and I think children need their fathers and their mothers as much as possible.
I'm not advocating a return to Ozzie and Harriet, and definitely not to the '50s. The '50s were not a good time for folks like me. You know, what I'm trying to do is find a middle ground. You know, I think the pendulum has swung too far. In the state of Georgia, you can get a divorce in 31 days. I'm really concerned, particularly about my community. When I was born in 1955-- I'm 52-- 20% of the children being born to blacks were out of wedlock. It's 70% now. And how did that happen? Things have gotten better, not worse, I think.
So we have to turn these things around. But I'm working very hard not to make it a "if you're rich you can do whatever you want, if you're poor you have to follow the rules" kind of thing. And that's why I think I've been so well received in giving this message. It was tough at first. Everyone-- I don't believe in marriage if there's domestic violence. Any you know, all the footnotes I can keep going on. And I can also just shut up, because there a lot of times when divorce is necessary. But I still wanted to take it on. It was very difficult at first. But after a while, people understood.
AUDIENCE: So you're saying it's too easy. That's the whole thing.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: It's way too easy.
AUDIENCE: So how do you reverse that?
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: We start talking. Everyone shies away. You don't even hear people talking about it anymore. Marriage is a bad word. It's a nasty word. People have children, and you're afraid to say, does he look like your husband, because most likely he's not the husband. We don't talk about it.
My mother told me not to take this up. You know--
She said, you're going to get tarred and feathered. She's 78 years old. She said, it's a good thing to take up, but nobody-- or friends, oh God, no, please don't do this.
But it's been very well-received among all kinds of-- blacks and whites. And it's interesting, so many people are creeping out of the closet. They were afraid to talk about it, because it's not politically correct.
AUDIENCE: I think as a physician--
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: It's sort of that diversity-- but you know, diversity can go too far, where we just accept everything. And that's what we're doing. We're teaching our children everything goes.
AUDIENCE: Mrs. Justice.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I don't think that's what we need.
SPEAKER 3: We're running out of time for--
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, anyway. Thank you. We'll meet again. Let me go on this side.
AUDIENCE: Justice Sears, I'm Rick Woroniecki. I was also born in '55, by the way.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Oh, good.
AUDIENCE: And I want to say-- I want to offer a couple of things. I hate to do this and take mic time. But thanks to everybody for coming tonight. It's wonderful when we have-- and thank mostly for you for coming tonight. I'm on the board. And it's wonderful when we have somebody like you that brings out so many people.
I met a chemical engineering colleague of mine who I haven't seen since we graduated. I met a fraternity brother tonight who I haven't seen in several years. And I want to encourage everybody to come to all the Cornell events we have in town. We have many of them. And we have a great time.
Now I'll shift into the topic for the evening. I got divorced from the practice wife about 20 years ago, and I spent a lot of my children's inheritance when they moved 800 miles away, by still staying involved with my children. I got to see them every month or every six weeks, talked to them on the phone constantly. When I remarried my wonderful wife, Liz, now, she became a friend to my children. So actually they have three hopefully wonderful parents to raise them. Of course we benefit because the kids thought of Liz as a friend, so they told her everything, which she immediately told me which I immediately told my ex-wife, which the kids didn't know until a couple of years ago, which helped raise them. And anyway, I appreciate a lot of what you're doing, and I think it's wonderful.
A lot of what you're saying tonight-- here's my question-- it seems to parallel the message that Bill Cosby is putting out. And I was curious if you've had any relationship with Bill Cosby, and if you were ever teaming together on some of this, because it's wonderful work and I want it to continue.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Right. No, I haven't. I've read some of his things, but no, we don't have a relationship.
AUDIENCE: I would encourage you to reach out to him. I think he would respond to the Chief Justice of Georgia if you wanted to do things together.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, I might give him a buzz.
OK, thank you. Thank you. So I'm putting my hand up because we're trying to get this light. I can't even see. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Justice Sears, my name is Frank Goldman, class of '87. I'm going to change the topic on you a little bit. You had recently given some testimony or provided a speech with respect to judicial pay.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And I was wondering if you could spend a minute or two commenting, reflecting on that issue. Because as I'm sure you know, it's a challenge here, not only in Georgia but throughout the country. So I was hoping you might be able to provide a minute or two of comment on that.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I'll be glad to. I'm sure most people here aren't lawyers and aren't that interested. But I'm the Chief Justice of Georgia. And that's fairly high up in the Georgia judiciary.
And I'll tell you, I now make less than a starting lawyer at a large law firm right now. And that's not unusual. That's my colleagues on the Supreme Court, my colleagues on the Court of Appeals. We have an average of about 25 years of experience. And while the guy who just graduated from Harvard, or Virginia, or Duke, or what have you is brilliant, most of them can't even find their way with the GPS system to the courthouse.
And I know there are market forces and that kind of thing. But we do need to give our judges-- I had a difficult time putting my children through college on the wages that I make. But I'm committed to the job that I do. If my son hadn't-- honestly-- hadn't gotten a full scholarship to Virginia, I don't know what I would have done. But I'm paying for my daughter, though. Boy, really.
You only get so much good luck. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I'm John Nixon, class of '53. Are there organizations in Atlanta, some nonprofit organizations, that are working toward improving or encouraging marriage?
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And what are those? And how can we get involved with those?
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: There's Families First-- there are just a lot of community organizations all throughout the country now that are slowly-- well, not slowly-- they're getting this on the radar screen. I think it's being heard. The whole fatherlessness issue.
We went through a time when I think a lot of people thought that women could just rear-- if you had enough money, and enough resources, and a nice uncle who could drop in from time to time, you could rear a child yourself. And you can do that, but fathers provide something very important. And the research is showing that marriage is something a little bit special. Because for those of you who are divorced, you might know this, marriage connects a man to the woman to the child. That's what so many of the studies are showing. So many men provide so much more when they're married to the mother of their children. So-- yes-- it can't always work out that way, though. So I do understand that. OK. Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm Susan Kayliss, class of 1980. And we've actually met before you were on the superior court. So that's how long ago that's been. In many wonderful articles that have been written about you-- and you alluded to it just now-- your childhood was impacted by the Civil Rights movement. I came to Cornell the fall after you graduated. And in my four years, as I look back on it, Cornell was politically pretty-- there was a lot of-- it was apathetic. I mean, there was just no political interest.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: You came in the '80s, then.
AUDIENCE: Well, no-- well, the fall of '76 is when I started. And so I was wondering what Cornell was like for you in a political sense-- the Civil Rights movement-- was it charged, and what was your experience?
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, now remember-- oh, thank you, that's-- I am 52. So I'm not a Civil Rights march, you know, lunch counter person. I'm married to a man who is 68 who is from Georgia, went to Clark Atlanta University who sat in at the lunch counters, and joined the Peace Corps, and he was in all that whole, we're activists.
I consider myself-- I went to Cornell in 1972-- I consider myself the affirmative action generation. I was a middle class woman. My father was an Army colonel. Didn't suffer for any money. I grew up-- I never went to a black school, except for one year when I was growing up. One year when my parents thought it was important that I spend one year in a black school, so they put me in a black school just to experience it. And then my last year of high school, we lived in a white Jewish neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia that was bused. But they bused the Jews and us, because it was messy back then. And they figured that Jewish students would integrate better with black students. So I got on a bus and was bused to a black school my senior year.
I'm telling you the truth. You asked. This is what--
I was so fed up, not with the integration. I was tired of being a pawn. I wanted to learn. And I really felt that I spent my whole much of my whole upbringing teaching people what black was. And I just got tired. I just want it to be comfortable. When you're in an all-white school, who do you go to the prom with? It just was too hard. And there were too many ignorant questions-- my hair, how does my hair braid? And I just wanted to be comfortable. So I got as far out of-- I applied to Cornell because of the Gorges in the brochure. So keep those. Way far up. I was-- my father was a colonel, real strict. I just wanted to go.
So when I was 16 years old, I got enough credits. I didn't do a senior year, really. I doubled up in junior year, and I got out, went to Cornell. And the first thing I did-- this was very natural at Cornell then-- all the blacks-- because it was a black and white thing then-- just gathered together. And it was almost like I was in it a historically black college at Cornell. I said at the black table, ate with-- you remember-- ate with the black-- lived in Wari House three years, partied at Ujamaa. But it was so great for me. Because really Cornell was so-- whatever you wanted to be, you could be. And it was a feast for me. And I needed to learn about what it meant to be black. I learned all that at Cornell. Because I was left alone. And I went to the Black Studies Center. And here I am today. It was good for me.
So it may look funny. But I was learning a lot. And I was relaxing. And I was just-- you know, I didn't have to struggle so much. The putting-together, sort of forcing the kids together may have made the place look better, but it wasn't-- I just needed to be among my own for a while. Just like when I was first on the court, it was me at 36. I was a 36-year-old Supreme Court justice. The average age of the guys was 60. Can you-- I'm serious. When I first got to the court. I mean, I was sweating, you know?
And I had some female groups-- Links, and AKAs, and all. Boy, I would sit there on the weekends, just being so happy just to be among women. Just-- [SIGHS] it's not that I didn't like what I was doing. I just needed to be someplace where I could relax. Does that make any sense? Wasn't racist, or I didn't hate anybody, still don't. So that's what it was.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thanks.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, OK. I'll move over here.
AUDIENCE: Good evening. My name is [INAUDIBLE] Matthews Baldwin, and I am a domestic mediator in Fulton County in the family court. So I see first-hand, Justice Sears, what happens relative to divorce. I mean, in any given day, you've got 15 or 20 cases-- in each of the courts-- divorce. And as a domestic mediator, it's my responsibility to see if I can help the parties reach their own agreement without the judge making a decision.
And I got to tell you, one of my catches for the dad and the mom to come together is over the children. And as much as they may fight in terms of this divorce, and pointing fingers every which way, when I bring them back to the children, I see in the father's eyes, in their speech, in their heart, they love their children.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: That's good.
AUDIENCE: And the one thing I wish that they knew is how to sort of take another road before they got to divorce. And I'm not so sure that many families know that. Because in marriage, for those of you who've maybe been through more than one, you close up when your marriage isn't going well. You don't ask for help. And so often, not asking for help or not knowing where to go, I think, makes the path to divorce even that much quicker. And I really wish that there was some way that families in crisis knew or understood that there was availability for help.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well, I don't think there is. There's not much.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Let me just say, we're starting, in the fall, a pilot court-- a new kind of pilot court where-- it may be Gwinnett, but it may be someplace else where--
AUDIENCE: I'm in Fulton.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, we can't do it in Fulton. I was in Fulton. It takes a lot of money to put something. But where there are more services, maybe we can save some marriages. And for those marriages we cannot save, the divorce will go down a little bit easier. We're bringing in many more experts.
Because you know, I really don't think divorces belong in courts. But that's radical. That's real radical. So I won't be radical right.
AUDIENCE: We do many mediations. I mean, many of the actual divorces, as you say, get done in 31 days because of mediation, and not necessarily because a judge got involved. But I just say to you, in doing your work, if somehow families in crisis could know that there is-- without paying a private practitioner. Because that's what many families also say, is that we just didn't have the money to go to counseling. So I just put that out there for you, if you can make that available in your work for people to know and understand there are resources. Because dads love their kids. They truly do. And I see it in their eyes. And I think that they would stay, if they could work it out, for the sake of their children.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Let me just say this. The average cost of one divorce in Georgia now is $35,000. Now, many of us can afford that, but most people can't. So you know. Yes, ma'am.
AUDIENCE: Your Honor, hi. I'm Lynn Worsberg, ILR, '87. And I want to first thank you for coming tonight, and for not taking your mom's advice, and going ahead and taking on this top.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Thank you. Would you call--
AUDIENCE: And speaking as the daughter of a great dad who stayed married to my mom, and the wife of a great husband, Frank Goldman, sitting up there, who is a great dad to his daughter, I wholeheartedly agree-- I think fathers in the home matter enormously. And I'm wondering, in your work, what legal strategies have you seen or begun experimenting with that would help fathers of families in crisis stay with the home and in the home, including your radical idea to take divorce out of the courts. I'd love to hear you get radical.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well, you know-- thank you-- a lot of the problems is resources, counseling, jobs. There are just lots of studies-- there was a Princeton study. You may be familiar with this. I think the Brookings Institute, I'm not quite sure. Where I think 100 poor women were studied, who had children. And their idea is-- or their thought process, why do you have children and you're not married, and many of them thought they were ill-equipped to be wives. They could be a mother, but being a wife took more work. And I would agree with that.
But that's one thing we-- you have to have the confidence that you can be a partner, and walk beside him, and be a support. And you have to know that that's a good mating strategy, that you need to keep that father close to you for the children. It's just not-- we've gotten into a cultural thing where it's just not even thought of anymore. People don't even think about it. I mean, are you finding that? I'm finding that, particularly among young women. They don't even understand what I'm talking-- I talk about marriage, and people change it to families to be more politically-friendly. Then I say, no, I don't mean families, I mean marriage-- you know, marriage. Families, marriage. It's one of the reasons I put marriage-- as the commission. Everyone wanted me to say "families" so we could include everybody. And I want strong families, but I want strong marriages too, be they your first marriage, or your second marriage, or--
And I want to see these bonds formed.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for your comments. I'm Jim Van Buren. I'm class of '55, and medical school in '59. And I can tell you that in doing a lot of years of primary care medicine here in Atlanta, I've seen an awful lot of really tough women who have been single moms who have raised their kids, worried, and struggled.
The question I have-- and we were blessed in my family. And my wife, who is also a Cornellian and couldn't be here tonight-- and we've just had our 50th wedding anniversary, which was great, and we had five kids, which was great-- and my wife was a stay-at-home mom, which I think made a big difference with our kids. And I wondered if you would comment about the present state, where so many families, and probably most families, have got to have two people working to be able to maintain the economics of their household, and what this means to the family dynamics.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Yeah, it's difficult. I encourage everybody, people who can, even if you have two people working, to try to live not on to win comes. But unfortunately far too many people have two people to work. But I think-- I don't really-- know I come from a tradition. I am an African-American. And black women have worked outside the home and in the home for years. And there have been very few black-- my mother always worked. She taught school for many years. And her mother always worked, and her mother before that always worked.
So I've never really seen that-- I think a stay-at-home mom is fine. And I certainly respect that choice. And I think it's good if you can afford that, and that's great. I don't think it's a must. I think it's a privilege. It's very rare in the world, if you look around the world, where you can have a woman who can stay at home and just take care. You go to Africa, they're farming and taking care of their-- most women, you do many, many things. So I'm not convinced that's a must-do. And I know most people cannot afford that. But if you can, I think that's good.
I've commented many times that I think it was an extreme burden going up in the judiciary, having my children. I was always juggling more balls. And I do still think it's harder for women than for men. Because I-- PBS interviewed me for a series one night. I'm sitting on a trial in a murder case, thinking about-- or at least my mind flits to, you know, I didn't unthaw the roast, flits back. And then, and who's going to pick up my daughter? And flits back.
And I don't know if it's something about women or what. Maybe you all women can help me. But I always felt like I had-- my husband, in that instance, would have just ordered pizza and forgotten about it. So I just always felt more guilt or what have you. And it's been my own personal. Because I felt I had to do-- or even as a daughter now, I'm Chief Justice of Georgia, I have a husband, I have two children, I do these kinds of things on nights off that are not off. It's just a lot of balls to have to juggle.
And I'll get a call-- just bringing up my mother again. She will call me at the office in a way that she would never call my brother who is a Naval Academy graduate, Stanford Law School graduate and all, and say, Leah, there is a sale at Macy's on white blouses. I swear to God. And I'm doing Chief Justice stuff. You know, I mean, I'm not a-- but I do think that women expect their daughters-- you know, why didn't you pick up Brennan at the so-and-so? Or, "they're fighting, are you going to do something?" And I think women are really-- I'm expected to get up off the bench and handle this, and sort of intruded on, asked more of in terms of family than men are. She would never call my brother, and would have never called my father. In fact, I was never to call my father at work. It would be too much on him. He's earning a living. OK, yes.
AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Tyler Tatum, class of '97. Thanks for coming out.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Oh, thank you.
AUDIENCE: My question is the fact that I feel like, in our society, we tend to have templates for things. You're expected to get married, you're expected to have kids to some extent. In every TV program, it's publicized. And yeah, we don't live it, but it's a kind of model we're living that we have.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: You think so now? Because I don't know one show where people are getting married.
AUDIENCE: I think it is.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Even now?
AUDIENCE: If you ask people why they have kids, most people never thought about it. They just did it because that's what you do. And so my argument is, should we make it harder to get married and easier to find birth control, because that seems to go at the beginning of the problem instead of the end of the problem. Once people are married and they never took the time to think about why they got married, they didn't take time to really understand each other before they got married, and now they're in a difficult situation where they really don't match. And then they have kids because their parents ask about it.
And the people who-- I know people who have decided not to have kids and are married, and they have a really tough road, because the get questions on it all the time. But they made conscious decisions knowing that it was a bad decision for them to have kids.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Let me say this. I don't think you should have to get married. It's fine to be single. It's good to be single if that's what you want. That you have to have children-- no one has to have children. I can't stop your parents from pressing on you. They're going to press on you. You just have to have your own mind, and live your own life. And people can choose whatever life.
I think what I'm trying to encourage is, if you get married, it is a serious undertaking. And it should be entered into very seriously, and not dropped when you wake up one morning and you don't feel self-actualized or something. It's a serious undertaking. And if you enter that serious undertaking, and if you have children, you should think about your children before you think about your need for self-actualization or whatever. Because we are in a generation where adults think of their needs first. When I was growing up, it was marriages were child-centered. Right now, they're adult-centered. You know, what do I need, I feel bad, I'm not happy. I'm sick of that. I've had so many people come, well, I'm just not happy. Well, heck, you can't be happy all the time. You have three children. They won't be happy either. Do you see what-- otherwise--
AUDIENCE: I agree with you.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I'm not trying to get anybody in a box. And it's up to you whether you get in a box. I never got into any box that I didn't want to. You just have to be strong, I guess.
My mother wanted me to teach school. And didn't get in the box. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Hey, I'm Alice Tarkington. And marriage means commitment and choice. And I think that in society today, we're ignoring those two fundamental facts. And so my question is, when we look at the availability of pornography on the internet and how it is influencing our children, but it's also influencing marriages, where people make personal choices to engage in that, and then the ramifications are larger. So should we be looking at how those things influence marriage, as opposed to just saying you should get married or not.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I don't have an answer for that. You're saying pornography is influencing the breakup of marriage?
AUDIENCE: I think it is, yes.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well I just wouldn't-- I think some people might say it might be helpful.
I'm sorry. I have to be cheeky.
I mean, I don't know. That's just beyond me. You mean like an obsessive pornography guy? Somebody who spends a lot-- I don't know. This is just--
AUDIENCE: Yeah, no, the question is, I guess, about choice, that people are making choices.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well, I think this is how--
AUDIENCE: --and teaching children.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: I guess what I'm trying to say is, my personal feeling, but I'm not an expert on this, whatever-- if you're married, whatever you're comfortable with is your marriage. Not all marriages are alike. And going back to that other question, you can't put every marriage in a box. And I think there are some couples who do all sorts of different things together. And they seem to be happy with that.
AUDIENCE: But the point is that the availability of that and how it influences children, and how it influences culture.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Well, I don't think children need to be anywhere near pornography. If that's your question.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK, not at all. You're saying there--
AUDIENCE: So it's a larger issue that, as adults, we have free will to choose that. But if it's a pervasive thing in society, children are introduced to it whether-- if they're just googling. So I think that has some influence on what we're seeing in the way of divorce and family breakup.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK. All right.
SPEAKER 3: Justice Sears.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Yes.
SPEAKER 3: You've been so gracious with your time. If you don't mind, we'll just have this as the last question for the evening.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK.
AUDIENCE: My name is Gwen Walsh. I want to thank you for coming. I've heard you speak before.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Come up just a little bit so I can hear you.
AUDIENCE: My name is Gwen Walsh I want to thank you for coming. And I agree with you that marriage is important and the children need a father in the home. But do you think that part of the problem is the lack of available black men who are willing to commit themselves to marriage?
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Yes. Part of the-- it's a multi-layered-- there are many, many-- and then part-- and then you have to go further, in the black community, why are there a lack of available black men. It's jobs, economics, education. It's very complicated. It's not that I just won't commit. It's complicated. I mean, for some, it may be. But for others, it's a little bit more complicated.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK?
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: OK. Thank you all very much. I enjoyed this. Thank you.
FRANK GOLDMAN: Again, my name is Frank Goldman. I am a former president of the Alumni Association here in Atlanta, and a proud alum of the university, class of '87, and class of '94 for the law school. And I want to thank you, Justice Sears, for your time this evening. It was a tremendous presentation on some important institutions here in Georgia and throughout the country. And on behalf of the Alumni Association and on behalf of all the folks down from Ithaca, I want to thank you, and present you with a couple of items as part of our gratitude.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Thank you. Thank you. Can I [INAUDIBLE]?
FRANK GOLDMAN: Yeah, sure, please.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: The Science of-- oh, great.
FRANK GOLDMAN: By Professor Brainerd.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: This will be great, because I got very interested.
FRANK GOLDMAN: And then this is a Cornell bracelet, I understand. We won't open that there, but it will give you a token of this evening, and of course of your time in Ithaca.
JUSTICE LEAH WARD SHEARS: Thank you so much. Appreciate it. I enjoyed--
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Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Human Ecology '76, delivered a wide-ranging and intellectually ambitious talk to Cornell alumni in March in which she advocated for programs that encourage parents to get married and stay married. The event was sponsored by the College of Human Ecology, the Alumni Association of Atlanta, the Black Alumni Association of Atlanta, the Law School and Law School Association, Minority Alumni Programs and the Southeast Regional Office.
Sears graduated from Cornell in 1976 with a bachelor's degree in human development and family studies, and went on to get a law degree from Emory University and a master's degree in the appellate judicial process from the University of Virginia. She was elected to the Superior Court of Fulton County in 1988 and became the first woman and youngest person ever to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court when she was appointed to the seat in 1992. She is also the first woman to serve as Chief Justice of the Court
Attendees of the event were welcomed by alumnus David Abrahams HE '76, MS '01, PhD '04, who develops programs at the Integrated Life Center in Atlanta, a non-profit behavioral health care organization. Charles J. Brainerd, Professor of Human Development and Coordinator of the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program, introduced Chief Justice Sears.