Ga. chief justice ‘stumped’ on gay marriage

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imageWhen it comes to strong marriages, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears stands firmly in support of them.

When it comes to same-sex marriage, the usually outspoken justice, who retires this month, can’t quite find the right words. On Tuesday, a question about gay unions even stumped her — this from a jurist once rumored to be under consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Asked whether the U.S. Constitution would require Georgians to recognize the marriages of gay Iowans if they moved to the state, she first deferred to a lesser document: The state constitution banned gay marriage in 2004.

Pressed on whether the federal parchment —- which says states will accept public acts, records and judicial proceedings from other states —- would nullify the Georgia amendment, the justice found refuge in ambiguity.

“I’m not sure,” said Sears, who said she hadn’t mulled the issue that promises a political firestorm when gay couples from Iowa and Massachusetts demand other states recognize their unions.

Sears was clear in supporting marriage in organizing a court-sponsored summit last year, even asking for “intelligent” debate on the issue. But in a wide-ranging interview with Southern Voice after the forum, Sears didn’t say if she supported same-sex unions.

Sears told Southern Voice that the court-sponsored summit focused on strengthening current marriages, not “who can get married.”

“Marriage is what it is right now, Nov. 20, 2008,” she said. “I would hope that if the definition of marriage is ever expanded, that people would want strong same-sex marriages.”

Sears, often branded a liberal, dissented from the state Supreme Court’s 1996 decision upholding the state’s sodomy law. Two years later, she voted with the 6-1 majority that finally struck it down.

But Sears also voted with the court when it dumped the state’s hate crimes law and stood with a unanimous decision in 2006 upholding a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“I’ve always been labeled a liberal judge, I’ve been labeled a way liberal judge, and I’ve fought three hard campaigns on gay issues. … I thought frankly that my opinions were fairly mainstream, and I think they are now, when I wrote them they were not,” Sears said.

“I also believe in marriage, get married, stay married, and a lot of right-wing people have co-opted that as their issue, but it’s not their issue. I thought it was my issue too,” she said.

Instead, she said being a good judge is about understanding what the law is and interpreting it to fit a specific situation, even if it means ruling against your own conscience. “There are some laws on the books that I don’t like, but it’s the law, and it’s plainly the law, and I’ve had to do that more times than I like,” she said.

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