Silver State Award
During an illustrious judicial career that spanned more than 40 years, Miriam Shearing used her gavel to shatter one glass ceiling after another. She was the first woman in Nevada to serve as a juvenile court referee, a justice of the peace in the Las Vegas Township, a District Court judge, a juvenile court judge, a Supreme Court justice, and eventually chief justice.
That’s why everyone who knows anything about the history of Nevada law would call Shearing a trailblazer — well, everyone but Shearing herself.
“I never thought of myself as a trailblazer,” she said. “I mean, somebody would’ve done it eventually.”
It’s easy to be taken aback by such modesty — until you realize Shearing’s pioneering career was never part of some grand plan. In fact, the only reason she enrolled at Boston College Law School in 1960 was that the philosophy degree she had earned at Cornell University failed to open employment doors.
She and her late husband, Dr. Steven Shearing, settled in Las Vegas in 1969 after he completed his ophthalmology residency at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School. He later served at an eye hospital in Pakistan under the auspices of Medico, the medical arm of CARE International.
Shearing was admitted to the Nevada State Bar shortly after she and her family arrived in Las Vegas, and she soon landed a job with a local law firm. Then in the mid-1970s, Shearing began serving as an alternative juvenile court referee — and that’s when her young career took a sharp turn.
“I enjoyed being a lawyer,” she said. “But soon after starting as an alternative juvenile court referee, I was asked to fill in for a man who had experienced a heart attack. I realized that I enjoyed making the decisions more than arguing on the behalf of clients.”
That spark lit a judicial fire that would burn from 1976 (when Shearing ran for, and won, a seat on the justice court) until January 2004 (when she retired after two terms and 12 years as a Nevada Supreme Court justice and twice serving as chief justice in 1998 and 2004). Even after she stepped down from the Supreme Court, Shearing remained active in Nevada’s judicial scene for several years, serving as a senior trial judge in rural areas when a local judge was recused.
Since hanging up her judicial robe, Shearing has turned her focus to championing numerous educational programs. An admirer of literature since her days studying at Cornell, Shearing was an early advocate of the Beverly Rogers, Carol Harter Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, through which she supported fellowships for young writers. Shearing and her family’s generosity also has extended to the William S. Boyd School of Law, the Women’s Research Institute, the College of Liberal Arts, and University Libraries.
Not surprisingly, Shearing has been recognized on numerous occasions for her career achievements and philanthropic efforts. Among other honors, she has received the Nevada Board of Regents’ Distinguished Nevadan Award (the highest honor given by the Nevada System of Higher Education); the Nevada Supreme Court’s 2012 Legacy Justice Award; and the National Association of Women Judges’ 2005 President’s Award. Also, the UNLV Foundation this year will welcome Shearing to its Palladium Society, whose members comprise the Foundation’s top donors.
When did you know that a legal career, which wasn’t something you initially intended to pursue, was right for you?
The minute I entered law school. I hadn’t really thought about being an attorney — I never talked to an attorney, didn’t have any connections to the industry. But I had trouble getting a job after I got out of college and needed to find a profession. So I applied to law school, got in, and immediately loved it. I thought, “This is where I belonged all along.”
You encountered numerous challenges as a judge when there were so few women on the bench. What’s one that stands out, and how did the experience shape you?
My husband was a doctor, and when he was doing his internship and residency in California, I took some tax-law courses at the University of Southern California while looking for a job. I inquired at this one law firm, and one of the attorneys I spoke with really wanted to hire me because the firm specialized in probate and estate planning. Congress had just passed a new estate tax law, so he wanted someone to review all his clients’ portfolios to see if the new tax law would affect them. So it seemed like a good fit.
A couple of weeks later, he called and said, “We had firm meeting and decided it’s firm policy that women with children should stay home.” So I didn’t get the job.
I persevered and ended up doing some temporary work for a different tax law firm. But that experience showed me just how difficult things were going to be for a female lawyer. I knew I would have to work extra hard and always have to prove myself. Then in 1976, when I decided I wanted to become a judge and there was an opening on the justice court, I went to meet the members of the County Commission, one of whom said, “Women don’t belong in the courts.”
That’s when I said to myself, “Well, I’m not going to get a judicial appointment, so I guess I’ll have to run for office.” So I did. And I won.
You displayed boundless determination throughout your groundbreaking career as a judge. Looking back, how does it feel to know you broke through so many glass ceilings?
I’m glad I did, but that was never the motivation. I just wanted the job and knew I could it. I enjoyed every judicial position which I was fortunate enough to win.
As someone who is an introvert, running for office the first time was daunting, but I did it and the community was more than ready. I remember when I won my first election, many people said to me, “It’s about time for a woman!” Now, much to my astonishment, the Nevada Supreme Court is majority female (four women, three men).
What would you tell the current female UNLV student who is reluctant to pursue a career in a male-dominated industry?
My words of wisdom are basically this: Get over any intimidation and just try! I certainly dealt with a lot of roadblocks along the way, but you can find ways around them if you’re intent on accomplishing your desire. And if you encounter those roadblocks and can’t get around them, jump over them. And if you can’t jump over them, run through them.
If you could go back in time, what piece of practical advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
What I want to say is, “Have confidence in yourself!” But you don’t just gain confidence by somebody telling you to be confident. So I guess I would tell myself this: Don’t assume that everybody is smarter or more capable than you are. Don’t sell yourself short.