From Bay Farm Road to NY Supreme Court judge


From Bay Farm Road to NY Supreme Court judge

Neither lisp, cancer, nor COVID-19 stopped Carol Sharpe

Managing editor

Sunday, November 29, 2020

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How does a shy, little, 'lisp-tongue' girl from Kingston end up as a Supreme Court judge in New York, beating back cancer and COVID-19 along the way? Carol Sharpe still doesn't quite know how she did it, but she was elected to the Supreme Court on November 3.

“I never thought that somebody like me could become a judge, just like I never thought I could be a trial attorney,” she told the Jamaica Observer via Zoom one Saturday afternoon, the only time her busy schedule allowed for an interview. She's now focused on mastering an entirely new area of the law, and failure has never been an option for Sharpe.

The sixth of seven children (one of whom is well-known journalist Michael Sharpe), she mimicked her siblings' knack for hard work during her early years. And, always at the back of her mind, there was the thought that she had to make her parents proud.

In the 1960s, her mother, like many other Jamaican matriarchs then, got a job in the US as a domestic worker. Mother Sharpe's employers sponsored her and she got a “green card”, then she methodically paved the way for the rest of her family to join her. The children emigrated by age group, the last three leaving together when the teen, who is now Justice Sharpe, finished The Queen's School in St Andrew. By then her eldest sister had moved to Canada, the second oldest was doing her Master's degree while working for the Jamaican Government as a diplomat to the United Nations, and her two brothers worked at night and went to school during the days.

Sharpe and two other siblings, who emigrated together in 1976, buckled down and put in the work when they finally joined the rest of the family. She studied sociology at Lehman College, feeding a vague notion that she would ultimately find a job that would allow her to help people. But she had no firm plans for the future when she graduated in 1980.

“Lehman College started a paralegal programme and I joined it because I didn't have a job nor was I going on to graduate school. You've got to do something, right?” Sharpe recalled of the road that led her to law.

But even when she was studying to be a paralegal it never occurred to her that she could be a lawyer. A friend of one of her sisters suggested that she apply to law school. She did. But soon after she began at Boston University School of Law she almost gave up.

“The first couple weeks there I felt so isolated, people don't really talk to you. I was out of my church community, out of my Jamaican community; I had no community. I said, 'I can't do this, I'm going home.' And a black woman there said to me, 'Too much blood was shed for you to be here, no, no!' So I stayed,” Sharpe shared.

After she finished law school in 1984 she still “felt lost”, until she passed the Bar on her first try. That gave her the confidence to apply for a job with the Bronx District Attorney's (DA) office in its annual intake of newly minted attorneys admitted to the Bar.

“There was nobody else there with an accent like mine. I used to speak with a lisp so I had to train myself not to. I never thought that with my lisp, with my accent, that I would be a trial attorney. But when you're in the DA's office that's what you do. I stayed there several years. I tried homicide cases, robbery cases, attempted murder cases,” Sharpe recalled.

By the time she left in 1993, she had worked her way up to being an assistant district attorney.

She then did a stint as a defence lawyer for medical malpractice firm Bower & Gardner before it closed its doors. This was followed, in 1994, by a job as executive agency counsel at New York City Transit Authority (TA), where she helped fight injury cases.

There were also changes in her personal life and she got married in 1996.

Then, in 1997, bad news: She was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour on her left femur. With the combination of an internal prosthesis, a bone transplant and crutches, she was back on her feet by 1998. In January 2000, on the verge of yet another surgery to stimulate bone growth, a bit of good news: She was pregnant, a natural stimulus for just the problem surgery was supposed to repair.

After time off having her child and recuperating, she was back at the TA. She stayed there for another three years and then a transfer to the labour and employment unit propelled her from being a state court practitioner to one who practised in federal court.

Her next career move was a three-year stint as a law clerk with a Jamaican judge elected to the Bronx County Supreme Court, the highly regarded Justice Sharon Aarons. By then, Sharpe had begun to yield to friends' urgings to become a judge. But being a civil court judge meant getting the stamp of approval from a panel made up of law associations and community organisations, approval that would only come if they knew what she stood for. It meant networking and attending fund-raising events. Left dependent on two crutches after a March 2013 surgery to repair a fracture to her femur, Sharpe showed up to the review panels. She did not have high hopes.

“I just didn't think it could happen for me. One, I'm shy. Two, you go and you have to meet people and you have to let them get to see who you are. There are so many other peers there at the event when you go, so many other judges. Here I am, this little Jamaican walking with one or two crutches,” she said.

“I kept going and with God's blessings, grace, and mercy — that's the only way I can describe it — I got the yes, the support to be on the ballot for an opening in the civil court. I got elected in November 2013. The term is for 10 years and it started in January 2014,” she added.

That milestone paved the way for her current role as a Supreme Court judge. To be elected, she had to have 10 years under her belt as an attorney, she once again had to face the panels, then the Democratic Party (which has majority control in Manhattan) had to nominate her and the electorate then voted. She was one of four people elected this year.

Sharpe is mindful of the weight of her new role, of the impact she can have on the lives of those who come before her court.

“I accept that a building will not be named after me. I accept that a street will not be named after me. I accept those things in life. And I'm not looking for that. It's the little things: How do we treat each other? How do we make each other feel?” she said of her current role.

Sharpe has no immediate goal for more career advancement, but would not dismiss an opportunity if it comes along. For now, she is focused on doing the job at hand; and she is grateful.

Her earlier cancer scare and this March's bout with COVID-19 that sent her to hospital for a week have driven home the point that she has a lot to be thankful for — community, family, friends that inspire and push her to do more. Years ago, among the members of her church community in New York, she said, was Aubyn Hill whom she found inspirational.

“He was an example to us as someone who worked hard and was successful. He was an example for me to try to do something with my life also,” she said of the current senator and well-known businessman.

Now Sharpe is hoping she can offer the same inspiration to little girls, like the ones now living in the Bay Farm Road community where she grew up. Her advice to any who will listen: Try, and never give up; choose your friends wisely; don't get pregnant too early on in life; read as much as possible; be part of a community where integrity, love and respect are shown; and don't worry if you don't know what you want to become later in life.

“I personally had no dreams, no direction, but if you just do your work it will all come together,” she said.

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