Anita Earls, the only Black woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court, is suing the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, claiming that the oversight body is suppressing her First Amendment rights after she commented on the lack of diversity in the judicial system. The lawsuit is the latest development for Earls, as many believe she has become a conservative target because of her identity and political stances.
An interview and an investigation
The current dispute regarding Justice Earls began in August, after she gave a June interview to the legal website Law 360. During this interview, Earls commented on the lack of diversity that exists among lawyers, judges and law clerks in North Carolina; for instance, Law 360 reported a study from state Solicitor General Ryan Park found that the lawyers who appear before the NC Supreme Court are 90% white and 70% male. Earls agreed that the legal system was not representative, clarifying that “I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious, intentional, racial animus,” but rather arguing that “our court system, like any other court system, is made up of human beings and I believe the research that shows that we all have implicit biases.” She also noted disrespect shown in the courtroom against female lawyers and judges as part of the problem.
In response to this interview, an anonymous complaint was made against Earls, arguing that her comments violated a portion of the Code of Judicial Conduct which requires judges to behave “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Based on the complaint, the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission chose to launch a formal investigation into Earls. The commission claimed in a letter sent to Earls on Aug. 15 that her comments “appear to allege that your Supreme Court colleagues are acting out of racial, gender, and/or political bias in some of their decision making,” CNN reported.
Violating free speech and stifling dissent
Earls has now filed a federal lawsuit against the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, arguing that its investigation of her is a violation of her First Amendment rights after she commented on the lack of diversity in the court system. In her lawsuit, Earls points out that the investigation is interfering with her ability to exercise her First Amendment rights through written work and public speeches.
Earls, the only Black woman on the NC Supreme Court, who will also soon be the only Democrat on the court, was previously reprimanded by the Judicial Standards Commission in March after a different anonymous complaint alleged that she publicly revealed private information about the court’s deliberations; the March investigation was reopened when the commission decided to move forward with the August complaint. These moves come as Republican-controlled governments in various parts of the country are using increasingly extreme tactics to target Democratic officials, especially women and people of color. In Wisconsin, for example, State Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz faces impeachment threats as she weighs in on whether or not the state’s congressional districts have been illegally gerrymandered to favor Republicans. And in Tennessee, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson have faced everything from expulsion to shoving from the Republican majority in that state’s legislature.
Now, Justice Earls may be the latest political figure to face scrutiny in a Republican-led state. As she fights back through her newly filed lawsuit, we will see if the federal government agrees with her claim that her First Amendment rights are being restricted — and if it will step into this latest contentious state political battle.