updated 6/29/2005 5:30:36 PM ET 2005-06-29T21:30:36

A black female state Supreme Court justice who overcame Republican efforts to block her re-election took the oath of the chief justice's office, with her longtime friend U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas saying he never thought he would witness such an event.

Leah Sears is the first black woman to head the highest appeals court in any state, according to the National Center for State Courts based in Williamsburg, Va. She will take office Friday, becoming the first woman to serve as chief justice in Georgia.

Sears vowed to "strive mightily to uphold the independence and integrity" of the judiciary. Thomas, a longtime friend who is also a native of the Savannah area, said "my pride runs deep as a human being, as a member of the judiciary and as a Georgian."

"I never thought that in my lifetime I would be able to witness a black woman as the chief justice of the state of Georgia's Supreme Court," he said.

Sears, 50, was branded an activist judge by Gov. Sonny Perdue and other Republicans, but she won a nonpartisan race last year for a third six-year term with 62 percent of the vote. She was subsequently elected by her fellow justices to be their chief.

Perdue, who had taped a message of support for her campaign opponent that was sent to voters, was absent from Tuesday's ceremony. The governor's schedule showed he was in north Georgia visiting a new crime lab, a Chamber of Commerce and a local industry.

Sears was the first woman and the youngest person ever to serve on the Georgia Supreme Court when she was appointed in 1992 by then-Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat.

Thomas said he is confident Sears will "call them as you see them."

"Those of us who are judges know that it is easy to judge when you already have your mind made up," he told Sears at her oath of office ceremony Tuesday. "It is hard to judge when you have to make your mind up."

Sears is the second black Georgia Supreme Court chief justice. Justice Robert Benham, who is still on the court, served as chief justice from 1995 to 2001.

In her acceptance speech, Sears stressed why it is important for the judiciary to remain independent of the executive and legislative branches.

"We must resist all temptations to intimidate judges or to otherwise ask them to answer for the hard decisions that they are being required to make," she said.

In his remarks, Thomas made a passing reference to speculation of a vacancy on the nation's highest court.

"As we ended our term at our Supreme Court _ at your Supreme Court _ the winds of controversy swirled about the court's decisions and, unfortunately, about the imagined resignations. As I considered what was happening around our building, I thought about the calm civility of today's events. I thought of the wonderful times that we would have here today," he said Tuesday.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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