An unprecedented legal life

Readers of the new biography of Susie Sharp, North Carolina's first female Supreme Court chief justice, will be amazed to learn about her secret -- at least until now -- long-lasting, concurrent love affairs with three men, not including her late-in-life proper courtship with fellow Supreme Court Justice William Bobbitt.

In "Without Precedent," the revelations about Sharp's complicated romantic life do not overshadow her remarkable achievements as a lawyer, her contributions to the judicial system or glass-ceiling-breaking accomplishments that helped clear the way for other women to succeed as lawyers and judges.

In rich detail, author Anna Hayes chronicles Sharp's career, beginning in 1929 in her father's law practice.

In a time before women were allowed on juries, Sharp successfully argued cases to the "gentlemen of the jury." Her reputation as a fine lawyer and her political connections led to her appointment in 1949 as the state's first female Superior Court judge.

In at least one county, she found that the only entrance to the judge's chambers was through the men's room.

Her skills as a trial judge led Gov. Terry Sanford in 1962 to make her the first female N.C. Supreme Court justice. There, she was quickly adopted into what was the "good old boy" club.

She proved her mettle as a hardworking, hard-minded appellate court judge, which led to her becoming the first woman in the United States to win election as chief justice of a state Supreme Court.

Hayes presents an objective portrait of a complicated woman whose views on some matters might not be understood today.

For instance, early in her life, Sharp decided that she could not marry and also have a successful career. Although she was an inspiration for female professionals, she never became a champion for those who combined career and family.

As Hayes carefully explains, Sharp strongly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. Although Sharp supported a "moderate" approach to the desegregation of schools and public facilities, she never overcame the racial attitudes that were typical of white people of North Carolina.

"Without Precedent" readers are blessed that the author shares many of her subject's best traits and experiences.

Herself a lawyer, Hayes brings a feel of law offices, courtrooms and judicial politics to her story. She is a skilled and patient researcher, having spent more than a decade reviewing roomfuls of Sharp's records.

Because, like Sharp, she is a careful and precise writer, Hayes' clear prose makes for enjoyable reading. She uses her storytelling skills and sense of humor to entertain as well as inform.

Former Supreme Court marshall and librarian Raymond Taylor told me recently that "Without Precedent" is a "premier example of how a biography ought to be written."

Such glowing praise may not sufficiently describe the merit of this book and the high standard it sets as an example of how to tell the story of an important person.