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Judge Kearse was born and raised in Vauxhall, New Jersey. Her father, Robert Kearse, was Postmaster of Vauxhall and her mother, Dr. Myra Smith Kearse, was a physician. When Kearse was ready for high school, her parents paid tuition to send her to the highly regarded public high school in a neighboring town, Columbia High School in Maplewood. Many years later Kearse and the actor Roy Scheider became the inaugural inductees in the Columbia High School Hall of Fame.


Kearse’s father’s ambition to become a lawyer had been thwarted by the Great Depression, and in her undergraduate years as a philosophy major at Wellesley College, Kearse decided that she would become a trial lawyer. Graduating from Wellesley in 1959, Kearse entered the University of Michigan Law School, where she won the freshman moot court competition, became an editor of the Michigan Law Review, and graduated cum laude in the class of 1962.


At the time that Kearse was looking for a job following law school, there was overt discrimination against women lawyers and there were no black lawyers at all in the Wall Street firms. Nonetheless, Kearse was hired as an associate by Hughes Hubbard & Reed and in 1969 became a partner in the firm. She was a litigator throughout her time in private practice, handling a variety of antitrust, banking, commercial and product liability cases, and concluding her private practice career with a successful argument of an antitrust case in the Supreme Court. In 1979, Kearse became the first woman to be inducted as a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.


President Jimmy Carter appointed Kearse to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in June 1979, the centennial year of the admission of the first woman to the bar in the United States. Judge Kearse is the first woman to serve as a judge of the Second Circuit.


A former competitor in national and international contract bridge tournaments with several national championships and one world championship in pairs or team events, Judge Kearse has written, edited, or translated from the French several books on contract bridge.


Judge Kearse was a member of the University of Michigan Law School Committee of Visitors from 1971 to 1979. Judge Kearse has received, among other honors, the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence from the Federal Bar Council. She is a member of the American Law Institute, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.