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NC's only Black female Supreme Court justice sues commission over First Amendment issue

Anita Earls talks with supporters after winning a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2018.
Liz Schlemmer
State Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls alleges that North Carolina's Judicial Oversight Board has violated her First Amendment rights by investigating her, after she publicly criticized court system's diversity and inclusion efforts.

State Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is suing a judicial oversight board that’s investigating her.

Earls says the Judicial Standards Commission is violating her First Amendment rights because it's investigating her for public criticism of the judicial branch. She recently told a legal news publication that North Carolina's court system has a poor track record on diversity and inclusion efforts.

She pointed out a lack of diversity among judicial clerks and criticized the Supreme Court’s recent decision to disband its Commission on Fairness and Equity.

"There have been cases where I have felt very uncomfortable on the bench because I feel like my colleagues are unfairly cutting off a female advocate,” Earls told the publication Law 360. “We have so few people of color argue, but in one case there was a Black woman who argued in front of us and I felt like she was being attacked unfairly, not allowed to answer the question, interrupted.”

Led by Republican Court of Appeals Judges Chris Dillon and Jeff Carpenter, the commission has written a document that said it’s looking into whether Earls violated confidentiality rules by making public comments about matters before the court. It also questions whether she violated a code of conduct that requires judges to promote "public confidence" in the integrity of the courts.

Earls is a Democrat and the only Black woman on the state's highest court. Her lawsuit asks a federal court judge to block the investigation from proceeding. Her attorneys wrote that the commission is misinterpreting the code of conduct in an attempt to silence her.

“The Commission’s actions in instituting the investigation indicate that it believes that ‘promot[ing] public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,’ is best accomplished by threatening judges who speak out about what they view as imperfections or defects in the judicial system and who do so in a measured and nuanced manner,” the lawsuit said. “Nothing could be more inimical to the First Amendment.”

A notice from the commission included in the lawsuit filing said the investigation would be confidential, and “information or documents provided to you in furtherance of this investigation may not be disclosed.”

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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