Her father was a postmaster and her mother was a doctor. She attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. A philosophy major and 1959 graduate of Wellesley College, she was the only black woman in her law school class at the University of Michigan Law School. She was an editor of the law review and graduated cum laude in 1962.
She entered private practice in New York City and rose to become a partner in the respected Wall Street firm of Hughes Hubbard & Reed.
Appointed to the Second Circuit appellate court by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, she was the first woman and only the second black person (after Thurgood Marshall) on the court.
In 1992, she was considered by President Bill Clinton for appointment as United States Attorney General; the job eventually went to Janet Reno. In 2002 she took senior status.
Kearse is also known as a world-class bridge player.
In 1986, playing with longtime partner Jacqui Mitchell, she won the World Women Pairs Championship which earned her the title of World Bridge Federation World Life Master.
She is also a seven-time U.S. national champion of the game.