Susie Sharp: A life in the law
“Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Sharp,” by Anna R. Hayes. University of North Carolina Press. 2008. 576 pp. Photos, bibliography, index. $35.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Few women can claim as many firsts as Susie Marshall Sharp, the first woman N.C. Supreme Court Justice.
She was also the first woman elected as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.
But above and beyond all the firsts, beyond the hype she endured as “the first woman to…” is a fascinating, complex and extremely bright person. She was part of an amazing amount of groundbreaking action, starting in the 1920s and lasting through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, Kennedy’s assassination, prison reform, court reform, the list goes on and on.
If nothing else, this excellent biography is a concise history book of the period, full of facts, equally full of characters.
Salisbury plays a very large part in this book, not the least of which is as the home of her first love, the late attorney John Kesler.
Sharp ruled on cases that affected Rowan Memorial Hospital and all non-profits across the state.
Sharp is surely one of the most complex people you’ll meet. Born in Rockingham County, raised in the then small town of Reidsville, she is a totally traditional Southern woman.
But as a graduate of UNC School of Law, a trial lawyer, superior court judge, Supreme Court justice, the possessor of so many firsts, she was tough, supremely fair and a remarkably advanced thinker in her career.
In the days before judges had robes, she spent considerable time and money to look good in court, yet bemoaned how often reporters remarked on her dress.
Acting as a lawyer and judge even before women were allowed to serve on a jury, she fought for sanitary conditions in the courthouses she served.
Deciding she could not have a family and a career, she nevertheless maintained three long-term affairs with married colleagues and served as the head of her large family once her father died, sending nieces and nephews to college, supporting struggling siblings and even doing taxes for her relatives.
She was aunt to Fritz Klenner and her namesake, Susie Lynch, who went on a shocking murder-suicide rampage in 1984 that deeply depressed Sharp for the rest of her life. Klenner murdered Lynch’s ex-husband’s mother and sister and Lynch’s mother, Sharp’s sister, Florence Newsom, as well as Lynch’s father and grandfather. Lynch and Klenner later poisoned Lynch’s sons, shot them, then blew themselves up following a wild chase in Greensboro.
While Sharp will be remembered for improving the judicial system, writing fair and balanced opinions and ruling the courtroom by the letter of the law, she is also remembered as a staunch opponent to the Equal Rights Amendment.
But Sharp felt gender should not be an issue in any matter, and saw the ERA as a threat to other rights. By simply pursuing her career, Sharp was an example to women all over the country, being among the first female lawyers in the state, the first female superior court judge and a strong advocate of rights for all people, regardless of sex or race.
In a letter to her friend Sen. Sam Ervin, who also opposed the amendment, she wrote, “No doubt those sincere and dedicated women who have made a career out of promoting this Amendment will feel that all who oppose it are ‘against women.’ That would indeed be a strange posture for me, for it was in high school that I began crusading for equal rights under the law and equal opportunity in every field of endeavor for women. I have worked, ‘participated,’ talked and contributed to that end to the utmost of my ability.”
Born in 1907 and raised in a traditional Southern home, Sharp was something of a racist, personally, although it never affected her judgments in the court.
She was also very feminine and liked to look pretty and have a protector or companion. But she decided at an early age she would never marry. As the oldest in her family, she had already raised children ó her siblings. She put her career first and argued no husband would put up with her demanding schedule.
That probably explains her long-term affairs with married men ó unattainable. And two of the men were close to her intellectual and legal equal, while the love of her life realized he could never offer her the life she deserved ó one that celebrated her remarkable intellect and natural talent as a lawyer.Author Anna R. Hayes, a former lawyer, gained unprecedented access to Sharp’s letters, journals and papers, granted by her brother, Kits Sharp, and other family members.
She holds little back, but does not sensationalize the more startling facets of Sharp’s life. Hayes’ chief fault is perhaps giving too much background or side stories. And her use of terms such as “inter alia,” which means “among other things” shows a touch of lawyer snobbery.
The beginning, which lays out a genealogy for the justice, drags a bit, but it points to the woman she would become and explains her deep Southern roots and beliefs even as she breaks new ground for women.
As the sole female in her law school class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was determined and terrified: “I felt like I had the honor of womanhood on my shoulders. I was very conscious of my family obligations, as well. I just couldn’t flunk out.”
It was here that she developed a lifelong friendship and occasional love affair with one of her professors, Millard Breckinridge, “Breck.” Breck would turn out to be a trusted adviser and stalwart. His wife and children adored Susie Sharp, and when it became apparent Venitah Breckinridge knew of her husband’s attraction, she accepted, if not embraced it. She, too, was a lifelong friend.
Sharp met Kesler in law school, but they grew apart when he graduated, came back to Salisbury, set up a practice and married. He was apparently “the one,” to whom she happily turned when he expressed interest again, 20 years later.
Her other lover, Allen Gwyn, was an attorney, then judge, from Rockingham County who ardently supported Sharp professionally and politically and put his own aspirations aside to get her appointed the the N.C. Supreme Court.
Once she was on the N.C. Supreme Court, she felt an even greater burden than she did upon entering law school.
Media demands were intense for the first-ever in North Carolina and her workload, always heavy because of her thoroughness, ballooned.
She wrote: “I am left with the feeling that I have taken the veil and the doors of the cloisters have closed and locked behind me ó and I am terrified.”
Nevertheless, she prevailed, immediately earning respect for her opinions, even from the doubters.
It was here she met her late-in-life companion, Justice William H. Bobbitt, who was chief justice before her. Although he was a widower and they could have married, they never did. Bobbitt always felt somewhat competitive with her, and sometimes was jealous of her the attention she naturally drew. But he cared for her even as her mind began to fail, assuring she ate, had a caregiver and companionship.
Sharp, for all her friends and supporters, was a lonely woman who had literally no female peers. She maintained lifelong friendships, but always at a distance due to her career.
She counted among her supporters Gov. Kerr Scott and Gov. Terry Sanford, who happily appointed her to the N.C. Supreme Court. Her detractors, and there were but a few, nevertheless respected her position.
Hayes writes that when Sharp died in 1996, a superior court judge said, “Chief Justice Susie Sharp was to the trial court bench in North Carolina as the North Star is to sailors.”
Extreme praise, to be sure, but on the mark. Sharp set many legal precedents, was the catalyst for numerous reforms, including of the judicial system, and was supremely fair and accurate in all her professional life.
Hayes captures a woman who made numerous sacrifices for her career and enjoyed numerous successes, although much of her life involved struggle, and she was denied the retirement she dreamed of.
Not only was she an outstanding woman and North Carolinian, she was an icon of her era, for women and all who seek justice.