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Devotion to the law hid her secret complexity

Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH You'd see them walking down Fayetteville Street from the Supreme Court building to the cafeteria at Hudson-Belk in the 1970s. She was Susie Sharp, the diminutive chief justice with the steely blue eyes. He was William Bobbitt, the former chief justice from Charlotte, a widower and her longtime companion.

It was clear they were devoted to one another – a fittingly platonic relationship for the straight-arrow Sharp, a distinguished chief justice who had broken down barriers all her life to become the first woman to be chief justice of any state Supreme Court.

She was one of the first few women to graduate from the University of North Carolina's school of law, one of the first to go actively into private practice in this state, and in 1949 the first woman to be appointed a Superior Court judge. In 1962, Gov. Terry Sanford made her the first woman to be associate justice of the Supreme Court. In 1974, she ran for and won the job of chief justice – first woman in the nation to gain such a post.

There was speculation that Sharp and Bobbitt might marry. But Sharp had decided many decades earlier that she could not successfully be a wife and mother while at the same time carrying out her responsibilities as a lawyer and later a judge. She was a perfectionist and did not want to surrender control over her life to the whims of the heart.

And so her image as a prim, conservative, hard-working judge who brooked no foolishness in her courtroom grew year after year, decade after decade. She fought her way through the indignities of courtrooms without adequate facilities for women judges and through the slights of fellow lawyers who made it plain they thought a woman had no place in the legal profession, let alone on the bench or on the high court.

Her public image was that of a gracefully aging spinster, married to the law and determined to stay that way. Little did we know.

Then came Anna Hayes, a Raleigh lawyer and an outstanding researcher who spent a decade carefully poring over the voluminous files, records and diaries that Sharp, who died in 1996, kept over the course of her long career. Out of that has come Hayes' outstanding and revealing biography, “Without Precedent: The Life of Susie Marshall Sharp,” published by UNC Press.

It's a fascinating account of Sharp's extraordinary professional life, recounting the cases she won and lost as a lawyer, her thinking about issues public and private and the opinions she delivered during her years on the Supreme Court.

It also contains the stunning news that Sharp had carried on love affairs with three married lawyers over the years – a law professor at UNC named Millard Breckinridge, Salisbury lawyer John Kesler and Judge Allen Gwyn of Reidsville. She evidently kept score, carefully noting dates and other details in notebooks that Hayes decoded during her extensive research.

These are eye-popping revelations about a jurist widely regarded as strait-laced and without interest in romance. It paints a portrait of Sharp as a far more complex and calculating person than most folks ever imagined.

Her legal career was equally fascinating. She once wrote the opinion that struck down the quaint practice of “brown-bagging” in the years before North Carolina allowed liquor by the drink – a decision that cost Mecklenburg County a bundle of conventions. In another celebrated case she wrote that an umpire could not sue a manager who incited a crowd to near-riot over the ump's controversial decisions.

She also got involved, probably unwisely, in the legislative fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. She made clear to legislators who asked her that she was opposed to the ERA, likely influencing a lot of votes in the General Assembly.

The news about her love life may distract readers from fully digesting the extraordinary accomplishments and challenges Sharp faced during her lifetime. This is a compelling read, and one that makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of North Carolina in the 20th century and the woman who changed our judiciary forever.

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor based in Raleigh: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com

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