Supporters defend NC Supreme Court justice who filed lawsuit against judicial board

Joel Brown Image
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
Civil rights advocates defend NC court justice Anita Earls
In an interview Earls discussed the Supreme Court's record related to diversity, alleging "implicit bias" against minorities in hiring.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A First Amendment fight is underway in Raleigh. North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is suing the state's judicial oversight board in federal court arguing the panel is restricting her right to free speech.

Earls' supporters gathered at the state legislature this morning -- accusing Republicans of trying to force the state's only Black female Supreme Court justice off the court.

"This is the beginning of a rallying cry for support for Justice Earls," said a speaker from the NC Black Alliance.

Earls filed suit on Tuesday against North Carolina's Judicial Standards Commission. The little-known commission investigates complaints against judges.

Earls' suit says the panel threatened disciplinary action for critical comments about the judicial system.

In a June interview for an online article in Law 360 -- Earls discussed the lack of diversity among Supreme Court law clerks and the elimination of implicit bias training in the court system.

On Aug. 15, the commission informed Earls that her comments may have violated the code of judicial conduct.

Earls is one of two Democrats remaining on the Republican-led high court. Advocates and Democratic lawmakers are rushing to Earls' defense.

"What we know is that the (judicial complaint) process is being bastardized in an effort to silence Black and brown people. And in this case, particularly, Justice Earls," said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC.

Earls faced a separate investigation in March after a complaint that she disclosed confidential information about current court matters. The commission investigated and dismissed the complaint.

Earls says the "series of months-long intrusive investigations" are part of an "ongoing campaign" to "stifle her free speech rights".

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation said he believes Earls' First Amendment argument may get traction.

"I think she has a very interesting point there and one that's likely to find some favor within the federal court system," Kokai said.

He was not so sure whether Earls was being unfairly targeted.

"I'm not certain if Justice Earls is being singled out," Kokai said. "We don't know which other judges and justices are getting complaints against them."

Back at the news conference at the legislature, Blagrove added, "It doesn't really matter who filed (the complaint). What really matters is why. And what we believe is that it was filed in an effort to remove Justice Earls, the sole Black woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court, from her seat."

Earls is asking the federal court to issue an injunction -- stopping the commission from continuing to chill her right to speak on matters of public concern.

In a statement to the News & Observer, the commission's director said the panel is "statutorily obligated" to investigate all alleged misconduct and can't comment on pending investigations.