June 23, 2010 16:35 Age: 4 yrs

Benchmarks? You be the judge.

By: Ginger Pyron

Among the Emory alumnae who have donned the black robe on behalf of the process—and progress—of justice are Brenda Hill Cole 77L, judge of Georgia’s Fulton County State Court since 1998, and Leah Ward Sears 80L, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Known and loved for her respectful courtesy to colleagues and offenders alike, Cole grew up in Joaquin, Texas, a small Jim Crow town with a volatile edge; she began making clear distinctions between right and wrong at a young age. In the 1960s, as a Spelman College student, she entered campus activism by joining hundreds of other students from the Atlanta University Center in a human rights protest march through downtown Atlanta.

From the bench, Cole often asks penetrating questions designed to make misdemeanor offenders understand the risks of their behavior and the alternate choices that are available: “If you keep doing things like this, do you know what will happen? Is that what you want for your life?”

She muses, “I say those things often, because you never know when you’re going to get someone’s attention and change their lives for the better. Occasionally, someone will write a note that says, ‘Judge, I got my GED.’ I treasure those.”

In 2009 when her term as chief justice ended, Sears resigned from the Georgia Supreme Court. Since that time, she has enjoyed other pursuits: serving as a fellow at the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank; teaching a course in family law at the University of Georgia Law School; practicing law as a partner at Schiff Hardin LLP in Atlanta.

“I went on the bench so early—I was 27,” she says, “and these are the things I’ve missed. I like doing the family law work at the institute, being able to speak out more, to get more involved in policy.”

What’s next? Sears says she’s ready to respond to opportunities: “I tend to be a catalyst for change, for new ways of doing things. My work at the think tank is definitely breaking new ground, and I enjoy being at my firm so much. Depending on the opportunity, I’m open.”

This April, Sears was reported to be on President Obama’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court, to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Sherry Boston 99L and Nicole Marchand 03L have sat at matching—but separate—tables in the same courtroom, as defense attorney and prosecuting attorney, respectively. Now, as candidates for Georgia’s DeKalb County State Court judge, they are looking together—and separately—toward the 2010 election. Boston is the Municipal Court judge for Dunwoody, Ga.; Marchand serves DeKalb County as chief assistant solicitor-general.

Marchand: “Among the five candidates, three are women. It’s great to know that women are choosing a role of public service, and I’m happy that Sherry Boston and I are both in the race. We respect each other as women striving to accomplish something beneficial.”

Boston: “I didn’t get this far by myself, so I’m always aware of how I can give back — or, as they say, ‘pay it forward.’ If you’re not giving back, then you’re not putting your life’s lessons to good use. Every position in public service offers countless opportunities to do both.”

Question: If you don’t win this time around, will you run again?

Marchand: “I will.” / Boston: “Absolutely.”

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