N.C. justice sues claiming ethics probe seeks to chill diversity critique

  • Justice Anita Earls says she is being investigated over news interview
  • Former civil rights lawyer cites lack of diversity in court

Aug 29 (Reuters) – North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit accusing a judicial ethics commission of launching an investigation into her that aims to stifle her criticism of the lack of diversity in the state’s courts.

Earls, one of two Democrats on the seven-member state high court, said in her lawsuit that the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission began a probe after she spoke to a legal news organization about her court’s recent record on issues concerning diversity.

Earls spoke to Law360 in a June article about “implicit biases” among her colleagues, a lack of Black law clerks being hired and how the court’s new conservative majority had disbanded a commission tasked with examining racial and gender inequality in the judicial system.

Earls’ lawyers are seeking to block the probe, arguing in the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina that her comments were political speech protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls appears in an undated handout photo. North Carolina Judicial Branch/Handout via REUTERS Acquire Licensing Rights

In a declaration filed in court, Earls said the commission’s actions were a “blatant attempt to chill my First Amendment rights to freedom of speech” and had prompted her to turn down opportunities to speak and write about race and gender issues.

“I believe that the First Amendment provides me and every American the right to free speech and to bring to light imperfections and unfairness in our political and judicial systems,” she said.

Brittany Pinkham, the non-partisan commission’s executive director, in a statement said the commission “is statutorily obligated to investigate all instances of alleged judicial misconduct and cannot comment on pending investigations.

Earls, a former civil rights lawyer, was first elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2018 and is today the only Black women serving on the state’s high court, which lost its 4-3 liberal majority in last November’s elections.

According to her lawsuit, the 16-member Judicial Standards Commission on Aug. 15 notified Earls that it was reopening a previously closed investigation into other comments she made after she spoke with Law360 about a lack of racial diversity at her court and the lawyers who appeared before it.

Patricia Flood, counsel to the commission, in an Aug. 15 letter to Earls said she may have violated the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct by alleging her colleagues were “acting out of racial, gender, and/or political bias in some of their decision-making.”

Flood said that conduct potentially violates Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires a judge to conduct herself “at all times in a manner which promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

The case is Earls v. North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, et al, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, No. 23-cv-00734.

For Earls: Pressly Millen of Womble Bond Dickinson

For the commission: Unknown

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.

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