Ethics complaint against NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is dismissed

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, speaks at a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., last August, defending Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.(AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

By Michael McElroy

January 17, 2024

Earls, the only Black woman on the North Carolina Supreme Court, was being investigated by the state judicial watchdog for criticizing the court’s lack of diversity.

North Carolina’s judicial ethics commission dismissed its investigation into anonymous complaints that accused Justice Anita Earls, the only Black woman on the state Supreme Court, of undermining the court’s credibility by accurately describing its lack of diversity.

The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission informed Earls that it had dismissed the case without recommending any disciplinary action and that the matter was closed, her lawyer, Press Millen said in a press release Wednesday.

After the notification, Millen said, Earls dropped the lawsuit that she’d filed seeking an injunction against the commission’s inquiry on the grounds it violated her First Amendment rights.

“I continue to believe that the First Amendment protects my ability to speak about matters of racial equity in the legal system,” Earls said in the news release. “However, I see no need to continue the litigation since the Commission has dismissed the complaint against me and at this time I no longer face being disciplined by the Court.”

She added: “I am enormously grateful to all the individuals and organizations, in North Carolina and nationally, who supported me while this case was pending.”

An accurate description

The issue began last summer when an anonymous complaint was filed against Earls after she highlighted the undisputed lack of diversity in the state court system to a reporter for Law360. She told the reporter she’d often felt “very uncomfortable” when her white male colleagues on the NC Supreme Court interrupted female advocates arguing before the court. All six other justices are white, and five of them are male.

Earls also noted to the reporter that the court’s new Republican majority had discontinued implicit bias training under the new Chief Justice Paul Newby.

All of these statements are true.

But in response to the complaint, the state’s judicial ethics watchdog opened an investigation into whether Earls had violated the court’s code of conduct by discussing these issues publicly.

It was the second investigation the commission has opened against Earls since Republicans won majority control of the state Supreme Court in the 2022 elections. The first was also dismissed.

An ‘unfathomable’ inquiry

In her lawsuit, Earls argued the investigations violated her First Amendment rights and reflected an intentional and unconstitutional “chilling effect” against her speech.

“The Judicial Standards Commission has little, if any, authority to try to investigate or regulate the speech of judges, particularly in the elected judiciary of North Carolina,” Millen told Cardinal and Pine in September.

“Someone asks a very pertinent question: ‘Why don’t we have more minority advocates speaking in this court? Why are there not more female advocates speaking in this court?’” Millen said. “Justice Earls gives some answers, and those answers, apparently, are thought to be sufficient to trigger a formal investigation as to whether she’s undermining public confidence in the judiciary.”

It is, he continued, “unfathomable to me how this could constitute an appropriate subject of judicial discipline.”

Chris Mears, a spokesperson for the commission, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday, but in June referred Cardinal & Pine to statements from Brittany Pinkham, the JSC’s executive director:

“The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission is a non-partisan investigative body comprised of members appointed by the Chief Justice, Governor, General Assembly, and State Bar Council. The Commission is statutorily obligated to investigate all instances of alleged judicial misconduct and cannot comment on pending investigations.”

In a news conference over the summer, several Democrats including State Rep. Abe Jones, a former state superior court judge, claimed that Newby filed the complaint against Earls.

Newby has publicly criticized Democratic justices in the past, said Earls’ election to the court in 2018 made him lose sleep, and has publicly suggested the court doesn’t have a diversity problem.

The Law360 analysis at the center of the interview found that 93% of the state’s court of appeals judges are white, and that, of the lawyers who argue before the court, 90% are white and 70% are male. The state’s population overall is 70% white and 49% male.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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