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North Carolina Democratic Supreme Court justice files lawsuit to stop ethics investigation

 August 31, 2023

Democratic Associate Justice Anita Earls of North Carolina's Supreme Court, a panel on which Republicans currently hold the majority, has initiated legal proceedings against the state's Judicial Standards Commission.

This body is tasked by law with probing potential breaches of the state's judicial conduct code. Earls argues in her lawsuit that the commission's inquiry into her public remarks about the state judiciary and fellow justices infringes upon her First Amendment rights, as Fox News reported.

Two weeks earlier, a commission staff attorney notified Earls of the panel's intention to scrutinize her actions following a media discussion in which she examined the Supreme Court's track record concerning diversity.

This wasn't the first time Earls faced such a review. The commission dismissed a previous complaint after she was allegedly found discussing certain administrative matters under consideration by the court.

Implications and Consequences

The commission's powers aren't just limited to basic inquiries. Depending on their findings, they can discreetly caution a judge or even suggest to the Supreme Court that a judge face a range of consequences, from a public reprimand to possible removal from their position.

In her legal claim filed in Greensboro, Earls articulated that these probes have not only stifled her freedom of speech but also hindered her judicial duties.

She has observed that other justices who have publicly discussed similar matters seem to do so without facing similar scrutiny. The repercussions from the commission could also hamper Earls' future professional endeavors, causing her significant damage, according to her lawsuit.

The dynamics at the North Carolina high court shifted from a Democratic to a Republican majority after last November's elections. The proceedings of the commission are mostly confidential, but any individual can lodge a complaint against a judge.

Earls' Stance on Diversity and Equity

In a June interview with Law360, Earls, the sole Black woman on the bench, deliberated on the court's decision to dissolve a commission that was focused on ensuring fairness and equity within the state's judicial system.

She also highlighted what she perceived as a notable absence of minority judicial clerks in the court. During this conversation, Earls alluded to the possibility of underlying biases influencing the court's decisions.

While she did not directly accuse her colleagues of explicit bias, she hinted at subconscious biases affecting judgments.

Patricia Flood, a commission attorney, recently indicated in a letter that the panel would reinstate an investigation based on an earlier complaint, keeping Earls' print interview in mind.

Flood pointed out that Earls' comments could be seen as suggesting that some justices might be influenced by racial, gender, or political biases.

Judicial Code and Earls' Perspective

Earls, on the other hand, argues that the judicial code allows judges to discuss matters related to the law, government, or administration of justice. She also reiterated in the interview that she wasn't insinuating any deliberate racial prejudice, emphasizing the existence of inherent biases in everyone.

Brittany Pinkham, the commission's executive director, reaffirmed in a recent statement that the commission remains impartial and is legally bound to look into all alleged judicial misconduct complaints.

The panel, consisting of 14 members, is comprised of judges, lawyers, and non-attorneys appointed by various authorities. It retains discretion to dismiss cases altogether if members feel the accusations lack merit.

Ever since her election in 2018, Earls, a former civil rights attorney, has often been at odds with the Republican-majority court. She has vocally disagreed with certain rulings, especially those related to voter identification and redistricting. Earls is up for reelection in 2026.