Published on:

Women’s History Month

North Carolina’s First Female Judge and First Female NC Supreme Court Chief Justice

Susie Marshall Sharp was born in 1907 in Rocky Mount. Her family relocated to Reidsville, where her father became a lawyer. She attended Reidsville High School, followed by the North Carolina College for Women, now known as UNC-Greensboro, and ultimately entered law school in 1926 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Before Justice Sharp’s enrollment, only three women had graduated UNC School of Law since 1911.

During her time at UNC School of Law as the only female student, she experienced ridicule from her male classmates attempting to force her to quit. But Sharp’s hard work earned her the respect of her classmates, and she was almost elected secretary-treasurer of her first-year class. Her hard work and determination throughout law school helped propel Sharp to the top of her class. Sharp was active in Law Review, was a moot court participant, and was one of only two students named to the Order of the Coif. Sharp completed the optional third year of law school, even though she passed the bar exam after her second year. After her father presented her to the court for admission to the bar in Rockingham County, Sharp recalled that the presiding judge said, “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.”

At that time, women accounted for around 2.1 percent of the legal profession in the United States and even lower in North Carolina, but Sharp was a standout as a litigator. With such a small number of female litigators at the time, a federal marshal in Greensboro once advised Sharp that she was sitting in a section reserved for lawyers. With time, court personnel became accustomed to her presence at the counsel’s table. As she gained experience Sharp never attempted to argue like her male counterparts. She developed a down-to-earth, organized approach to law with a skillful sense of humor to win over juries.

Sharp was appointed as a special judge to the superior court in 1949 by Governor Scott, becoming the first female judge in North Carolina. While serving as a special judge for the superior court, Sharp traveled around the state to fill in for judges who were ill or on vacation. During her tenure as a special judge, Sharp earned a reputation as a knowledgeable, no-nonsense judge able to control her courtroom. Governor Sandford appointed Sharp as the first female justice to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1962. Justice Sharp quickly earned the respect of her colleagues through her intellect and scholarship. Justice Sharp’s decisions and work made significant changes in liability law affecting charitable hospitals, divorce, product liability, and worker’s compensation.

Justice Sharp was reelected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1966. When she ran for Chief Justice in 1974, she won the seat with a 74% margin becoming the first woman elected as chief justice of a state supreme court. Chief Justice Sharp held the judiciary to a high standard and worked to modernize administration of the court system. During her legal career, she commented that she had achieved so much because she was a woman and was adamantly opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment. Sharp’s view of the ERA was that it would deprive women of protections currently in place without expanding protections that women did not already possess under the Constitution.

Chief Justice Sharp retired on July 30, 1979, and died in Raleigh on March 1, 1996, never having married nor having any children. Her grave is in Reidsville, where she spent her formative years.