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Susie Marshall Sharp: It’s Not Just the Woman Thing

The legal career of North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Susie Marshall Sharp, who retired in 1979, included seventeen years as a trial attorney before women were allowed to serve on juries in 1946. She accepted few barriers based on her gender. As the first woman judge in North Carolina, she once remarked on a quotation she had read: “‘Judges are but men, encompassed by error, seasoned with sin, and fettered by fallibility.’ What woman couldn’t meet those specifications!” She herself was often quoted as saying, “Work has no sex.” In fact, however, she achieved national prominence in the legal profession at a time in which women were virtually invisible as attorneys, let alone judges.

This should inspire us, and does.

I would argue, however, that it was her obdurate refusal to allow her nineteenth-century attitudes about race to erode her belief in the rule of law that should stand as her monument.

She was born in 1907 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the first of ten children of Jim and Annie Sharp, three of whom died in childhood. Jim Sharp was a yeoman farmer who had managed to get some education. He founded a successful coeducational school in Madison County called Sharp Institute, where he met his bride, who had come there to teach. Annie Sharp was descended from a family with claims to Southern aristocracy, landholders and slave owners. After the Civil War, her family endured the hardships of Reconstruction but never relinquished a belief in the value of education. Sharp Institute held hopes of all kinds, but in the same year that Susie Sharp was born, it burned to the ground, and the Sharps were penniless. After a fruitless effort to become an insurance agent in Rocky Mount, Jim Sharp determined to become a lawyer. The family returned to his native Madison County, where he read law as he plowed the fields behind his mule. After further financial disasters, he landed in Reidsville, North Carolina, and set up a practice.

Sharp sometimes said that her legal education began the day her father got his law license. By the time she graduated from high school in Reidsville, North Carolina, she had decided two things: She would become a lawyer and she would never marry. Despite her lifelong insistence that no woman should be barred from work if she was physically capable of it, she never believed that a woman could have both a marriage and a career. She attended the North Carolina College for Women, now known as UNC-Greensboro, for two years, then entered law school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1926.

North Carolina had a relatively enlightened position on women pursuing the law, even if less than a handful had actually practiced. Although women were barred from attending the university as undergraduates unless they transferred in as juniors after completing two years elsewhere, UNC had admitted its first woman to the law school in 1911. Nonetheless, there had been only three female graduates of the law school before Susie Sharp entered, and she was the only woman in her class of approximately sixty.

She did not go unnoticed. As the sole exception to alphabetical seating, her professors planted her in the first row. Her heels echoed in the uncarpeted hallways. Classmates left anonymous notes in her chair, including one that informed her, “John Calvin said it was O.K. for a man to beat his wife, but he did not think he ought to rub salt in the wounds; we think Calvin was wrong about the salt.” Another note said, “One drop of kerosene ruins a whole barrel of flour.” Still another suggested she read a North Carolina Supreme Court case upholding the exoneration of a husband who had dragged his wife around on the floor by her hair, on the grounds that because he was responsible for her conduct, he was entitled to use such force as was necessary to achieve the correct result.

Eventually, though, the novelty of her presence wore off, and one last anonymous note advised that she might take advantage of a sale at the shoe store downtown, where she could find some rubber heels. She took it as a good sign that the boys no longer felt the need to hear her coming. In fact, she made lifelong friends among her classmates, many of whom would go on to become prominent attorneys and judges in North Carolina. She was liked and respected enough that she almost got elected secretary-treasurer of her first-year class, losing by only two votes on the third ballot. Equally important, her intellect and hard work vaulted her to the top of her class. She was chosen for the Law Review, excelled in moot court, and graduated as one of only two in her class named to the Order of the Coif, the law school equivalent to Phi Beta Kappa.

Although she was one of the few who completed the then-optional third year of law school, she took the bar exam and got her law license in 1929, after her second year. She never forgot what happened on what should have been one of the proudest days of her life. Law license in hand, she went to be sworn in as a member of the bar in her home county of Rockingham. With great paternal pride, her father presented her to the court and moved for her admission. In a speech more than fifty years later, she recounted what happened next: “Hizzoner dutifully administered the oath. Then, instead of making the usual congratulatory remarks and welcoming the neophyte into the profession, that judge said to me, from the bench in a crowded and interested courtroom, ‘Well, young lady, I congratulate you and all like that, but I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t tell you that you will never make a lawyer. If you persist you will just be wasting your time, playing in the sand. I advise you to start right now trying to find something more appropriate to do.’”

Characteristically, despite the judge’s rude discouragement, Jim Sharp wasted no time in ordering letterhead stationery with “Sharp & Sharp” at the top. He intended for his daughter to become a full partner in the law firm. As for Susie, without a father or a husband to take her into his practice, she would have had to find a different way to make a living.

It was not easy. Clients tiptoed up the stairs in hopes of finding “Mr. Jim” in the office, and not “Miss Susie.” One old gent came up, unburdened by business, just to see what a female lawyer looked like. One of Susie’s law school classmates wrote to sympathize with her, saying, “It’s a pity you are a woman. You will always be at a disadvantage for that very reason.” Meanwhile, Jim Sharp, who had learned the law largely on his feet, chafed at the newfangled learning that his daughter brought, fresh from law school, but did his best to help her through the humbling experiences of any new lawyer.

Susie Sharp, living at home with her parents and six siblings, missed the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Chapel Hill. For about two years during the Great Depression she took a job working as a secretary in the dean’s office at the law school, which enabled her to contribute to the financial support of her family, to indulge in a rather complicated social life, and to decide that she really did want to practice law. Once she returned to Reidsville, she never wavered.

She was an anomaly. Although the percentage of lawyers who were women in the United States nearly doubled between 1910 and 1930, this brought the total to a mere 2.1 percent of all lawyers. In North Carolina, women in the legal profession were nearly nonexistent. Even more rare were women trial lawyers. The idea of a woman litigator was so unnatural that a marshal in federal court in Greensboro did not hesitate to tap Susie Sharp on the shoulder and tell her she had to sit somewhere else because she was in the section reserved for lawyers. She continued, however, to accompany her father to court, giving him the benefit of her law school education to protect their clients on appeal. Gradually people began to get accustomed to seeing her at the counsel table.

Nonetheless, she wanted to be on her feet in the courtroom. Bombast was the prevailing style in the courtroom, however, and no one imagined that a woman could be a match for the aggressive, rafter-shaking rhetoric of the trial lawyer. But Susie Sharp understood that the worst thing she could do would be to try to act like a man. She thought that juries might listen to her arguments because she was a woman, out of curiosity if nothing else. She found that her organized mind, down-to-earth approach, and a skillful sense of humor could carry her to victory.

For twenty years, Sharp & Sharp represented all kinds of clients in its general law practice. Jim Sharp was also very active in local politics, earning the moniker “Mr. Democrat.” When Kerr Scott ran for governor against the “machine candidate” Charles Johnson in 1948, Jim and Susie Sharp were among the very small number of his supporters in the legal community statewide, with Susie serving as Scott’s Rockingham County campaign manager in the primary elections. In fact, she was one of the first female political operatives in the state.

It was Governor Kerr Scott, a populist iconoclast, who appointed her as a special judge to the superior court bench in 1949. Special superior court judges held court all across the state, filling temporary vacancies when a judge was ill or on vacation.

She was the first woman judge of any kind in North Carolina, where courtrooms were considered no place for a lady. It had been only three years since women gained the right to serve on a jury, something they were largely reluctant to do. In many courthouses, there was not even a ladies’ room. In Beaufort County, the only way to enter the judge’s chambers was through the men’s room. So unimaginable was a female judge that one newspaper reporter assigned to cover her first term of court in his county, despite knowing that the judge’s name was Susie, declared he was shocked, having expected to see a man by that name.

For thirteen years, long before there were interstate highways and in every kind of weather, Judge Sharp drove herself from one end of the state to the other to hold court, acquiring a reputation as a knowledgeable, capable, no-nonsense judge in full control of her courtroom. Courtroom spectators almost always included a few women who had come to see her for themselves. At night, she often had to make an after-dinner speech to local worthies, in addition to preparing for the next day in court. She never turned down an invitation to make a commencement address. Although she did not have to be elected to keep her job, it did depend on the favor of the governor, and she had the burdens of any politician. It was soon apparent that any governor who did not reappoint her would risk widespread criticism from both the legal profession and the general public.

When Governor Terry Sanford appointed her the first woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1962, the governor’s office had to hire two extra secretaries to handle the congratulatory mail. On the court, her new colleagues were of the old school, cordial and welcoming even if they harbored shock and misgivings. She soon earned their respect, however, with her intellect and painstaking scholarship.

It was a conservative court, not given to pushing the boundary between the judicial and electoral branches. One justice was such a stickler for adhering to precedent that he claimed never to have written an original word in his supreme court opinions. Justice Sharp herself had a profound appreciation for the value of precedent, which lent stability and predictability to every aspect of life. In a handful of important cases, however, she undertook to clarify the muddle left by statute and common law, sometimes to the extent of overturning precedent entirely. As only one of seven members of a very traditional court, she needed all her intellect and meticulous research to obtain a majority. In a few cases, it was her powerful dissenting opinion that provoked the legislature to change the law. Her work improved the lives of North Carolinians in important areas such as the liability of charitable hospitals, workman’s compensation, divorce, and product liability.

Elected in her own right in November 1962 after her March appointment to the supreme court, Justice Sharp was reelected in 1966. Then in 1974 she ran in a statewide election for Chief Justice, winning the top post by a 74% margin. She was the first woman in the United States to be elected chief justice of a state supreme court. In this role, she continued her contributions as the author of significant opinions, but she also administered a court system with 2500 employees and a $40 million budget. She did much to modernize the administration of the courts, she advocated for improvements to the prison system, and she held the judiciary to a high standard. When she retired in 1979 at the age of seventy-two, she took her place in the judicial pantheon.

So, yes, she had accomplished things no one imagined a woman could do. Her record on the role women could or should play in society, however, was mixed. She yielded to no one in her support of “women’s rights”: women’s ability to work at most occupations, women’s right to equal pay, women’s importance as voters and activists in the political system. But she often said that a woman could not be a wife and mother if she wanted to have a career. This did not mean that she lacked for love. Unknown to the public, and contrary to her carefully cultivated public image as a spinster who had sacrificed marriage for her career, she had lifelong romantic relationships with three married men, sometimes overlapping. Late in life, she had a long relationship with her colleague on the North Carolina Supreme Court, Chief Justice William H. Bobbitt, a widower, which the public viewed with great affection and approval.

She was adamantly opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment. This bewildered and angered women who did not agree with her view that the ERA would deprive women of protections they had in law without offering any protections they did not already have under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although her position was held by some reputable legal scholars at the time, many women never forgave her.

She herself often said that she had achieved so much because she was a woman, declaring that if she had been a man, she would have just been one of many. The fact remains that she accomplished far more than most men, let alone women, and blazed the trail for women who followed her.

Her spectacular career grew from her ambition, from goals she desired. Her most impressive victory, however, came from battles she did not want to win.

From the perspective of 2020, embroiled as we are in the Black Lives Matter furor stoked by the murder by the police of a Black man named George Floyd, it is all too apparent that racism in America remains a fundamental problem. For those who remember the racism of fifty or sixty years ago, however, it is not the same. Today racism exists, it even thrives in places, but it is shameful. During Susie Sharp’s lifetime, racism was, quite simply, the norm. Her views on race were solidly in the mainstream.

“As a child, I was an unreconstructed rebel,” she once said. Her father was the son of a Civil War veteran. Her mother descended from antebellum slave-owning “aristocracy.” This did not necessarily mean that Susie Sharp was blind to the humanity of Black people. For example, when she joined her father’s law practice, Sharp & Sharp continued to represent many Black clients. Although Jim Sharp adhered to the segregated customs of the day, he recognized the unfairness of the system and was known to fight just as hard for a Black client as a white one, even if he knew he was unlikely to get paid. Susie Sharp was less willing to work for free, but she worked hard for all her clients, Black or white.

She believed it was in the enlightened self-interest of whites to support such improvements as sanitary conditions and home ownership in Black neighborhoods, acknowledging that disease knew no color line, and that a property owner was usually a good citizen. But the bottom line was “separate,” no matter how “equal.” As early as 1948, years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, she warned that federal intervention to abolish segregation would not change whites’ deeply held feelings and would result in tragic consequences.

She was willing to admit that her prejudice was based on the specter of miscegenation. “Democracy does not demand fusion of the races any more than it demands the fusion of religions,” she said. For much of her life, until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against such bans in 1967, interracial marriage was a felony in North Carolina, punishable by up to ten years in prison. Paraphrasing Booker T. Washington, Sharp advocated “the continuance of the white and colored races in the U.S. as ‘separate as the fingers yet as united as the hand.’”

Where she parted ways with many, however, was in her profound belief in the rule of law. “Brown,” she said in a 1956 commencement address, “presents a soul-searching problem to lawyers who have sworn to support the Constitution and who have always understood the Constitution to be what the Supreme Court said it was.” In a 1964 letter to a former college professor, she said, “Our system (a government of laws, not men) cannot tolerate the philosophy that obedience to law rests upon the personal likes and dislikes of any individual. This means, of course, that the South must obey the civil rights law.”

The aftershocks of Brown, augmented by Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and the expansive liberal opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, afflicted the country for years. As a state court judge, Sharp had few opportunities to address these civil rights issues, which were primarily the domain of the federal courts. Nonetheless, there were occasions when the ripple effects found their way to her courtroom.

After Brown came down, North Carolina walked a knife’s edge, trying to mollify hard-line segregationists while avoiding confrontation with the federal government. Federal intervention to compel rapid integration would have created the worst of all possible worlds: desegregation, the destruction of the public school system, and economic disaster. In 1956, in an atmosphere heavily charged with racial feeling, Judge Sharp presided over a lawsuit demanding desegregation of Charlotte’s only municipal golf course. The golf course was part of a public park that had been deeded to the city with provisions stating that the entire property would revert to the grantor if any part of it were used by Negroes.

The North Carolina Supreme Court had ruled that these provisions were valid, which meant that the city would lose a valuable public park if the golf course were desegregated. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, leading to a challenge brought in Judge Sharp’s courtroom by the NAACP, asserting that the plaintiffs had been denied their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The NAACP sent Spottswood Robinson, one of their most prominent civil rights attorneys to Charlotte to argue the case. He cited three U.S. Supreme Court cases in which the Court had ruled in favor of desegregating state and municipal recreational facilities, including bathing beaches and bathhouses in Maryland, a golf course in Atlanta, and state parks in Virginia.

Judge Sharp was compelled to state that the court had no alternative but to find for the plaintiffs. According to the Charlotte Observer, her ruling was the first court order directly affecting segregation in Charlotte’s municipal facilities.

Speaking of the NAACP attorney in a letter to a former law professor, she wrote, “I could feel his hatred and I had the impression that he could feel mine because I had to grant him the injunction but despised having to do so. . . . Wasn’t it the irony of fate that I, who would almost have preferred to close it down, had to order the course opened to them.”

There was no doubt in her mind as to which was the greater evil, desegregation or the subversion of the rule of law.

It is noteworthy that Judge Sharp did not surrender her allegiance to the rule of law at this time, just a few months after 92 of the 106 Southern members of the U.S. Congress, including nearly the entire North Carolina delegation, had signed a “Southern Manifesto,” declaring Brown illegitimate, thus encouraging defiance. The document was written in part by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, who was a hero of Judge Sharp’s.

Ten years after Brown, less than 1 percent of Black students attended public schools in North Carolina with white students. Landmark civil rights statutes and court decisions seemed to rain down on a white populace still unreconciled to the reality of integration. Sharp continued to believe that federal interference in race relations would “simply stir up violence and harden resistance.” In 1964, she wrote a North Carolina Supreme Court opinion upholding the use of a state antitrespass law to enforce segregated seating in a movie theater. Two years later, however, after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturned this decision, it was Justice Sharp who wrote the majority North Carolina Supreme Court opinion barring the construction of segregated high schools in Beaufort County, despite bond proceeds designated for that purpose. Recognizing that, despite Brown, Beaufort County officials had never acknowledged integration as the law of the land, she wrote that they “were now required . . . to take the steps which, in their best judgment, will serve the highest good of all the children, for whom they are trustees,” for—as she deeply believed—“the preservation of our form of government . . . depends upon an adequate system of public education.” She was unequivocal: “The Brown case is binding upon us. . . . The question whether the schools of Beaufort County will be integrated in the future is no longer open.”

Justice Sharp authored this controversial opinion in 1966, a year in which she was up for reelection for her seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Under the procedures of the court, she was not assigned to write the opinion. She could have dodged it, but she chose to write it. Voters, to be responsible citizens, needed to be informed, and she did not shrink from delivering the message, despite her own dislike of the result.

In these times when many believe that the foundations of our government are under assault and are being visibly eroded, Sharp’s belief in and adherence to the rule of law as a fundamental, essential principle of democracy reminds us of its importance. It is here that Susie Sharp truly inspires.