Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, considered a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, has drawn criticism from gay rights groups after announcing plans to join a think tank whose founder is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.

Sears, the nation's first black female chief justice of a state supreme court, announced this week she will join the New York-based Institute for American Values when she retires June 30.

She has declined to address speculation about a possible nomination to succeed retiring Justice David Souter, who will leave the Supreme Court when it ends its current session in June. Sears has appeared on several lists of possible candidates to succeed Souter, according to officials familiar with President Barack Obama's deliberations.

Obama publicly supports civil unions and aides say he believes that committed gay and lesbian couples should receive equal rights under the law. He does not, however, personally support gay marriage; he believes that states can make their own decisions about marriage.

In announcing her future plans, Sears said her role at the institute would build on her work with the Georgia Supreme Court toward "strengthening the institution of marriage" by working to reduce the nation's divorce rate.

Gay rights advocates, who enthusiastically supported Sears' re-election bid against a conservative in 2004, said they felt betrayed that she will be working part-time for the New York-based think tank.

Institute president David Blankenhorn, critics point out, wrote in 2008 that changing the definition of marriage to accommodate gay couples "definitively undermines" the institution of marriage. Blankenhorn, however, has said he doesn't oppose Congress supporting civil unions if states can have exceptions allowing religious groups not to accept them.

Jeff Graham, executive director of the gay rights group Georgia Equality, said Sears' decision to join the Institute for American Values is "something that's very troubling, concerning and at the very least disappointing to me."

State Rep. Karla Drenner, the state's only openly gay legislator, said she felt "betrayed."

"I don't understand her committing her energies to an organization that doesn't believe in equality for everybody," Drenner said.

Gay rights groups eagerly backed Sears in 2004 when she faced Grant Brantley, a conservative who earned the endorsements of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state GOP leaders. She has also drawn criticism from conservatives for siding with an opinion that overturned the state's law against sodomy.

Sears, who has not taken a public stance on same-sex marriage, said the institute takes no position on same-sex marriage and has a number of scholars on both sides of the issue.

"Blankenhorn happens to be on one side of this issue, and there are those on the other side," she said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Sears, who was once divorced but has since remarried, said she is joining the group to continue her push for reducing unnecessary divorces, a topic she has embraced since she became chief justice in 2005. In a recent interview, she said the 2007 suicide of her brother, who was in the grips of a painful divorce, further inspired her work. "It made it very personal," Sears said.

Blankenhorn is a self-described "lifelong Democrat" who wrote "The Future of Marriage," which discusses his belief that children need a mother and a father.

In an interview Thursday, Blankenhorn said same-sex marriage is one of dozens of issues the institute studies and there is no "litmus test" on where members of its board of directors fall on the contentious topic.

"I have my position that I have, and I have plenty of colleagues with different positions," he said. "The ethos at this organization is that we have different positions and we're actively involved in bringing people together."

He said Sears had made it clear she won't take a public stance on same-sex marriage _ an issue that might come before her for judicial review.

Blankenhorn has drawn praise from some prominent supporters of gay marriage as someone who is looking for middle ground on the contentious topic.

Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar with the Brookings Institution who wrote "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good For Gays, Good For Straights, And Good For America," called Blankenhorn a "uniquely constructive force" in the debate. "He's trying to carve out a new center," Rauch said.

In 2006, Sears joined a unanimous decision that upheld Georgia's same-sex marriage ban. The court didn't rule on the merits of the ban. It just dismissed a challenge that claimed the law violated a rule governing the number of issues on a ballot measure.


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