A Republican-majority Democratic North Carolina Supreme Court judge Tuesday sued an ethics panel to prevent it from investigating her public statements about state courts and peers, saying the inquiry and other ongoing investigations violated her rights to free speech hurt.
Assistant Judge Anita Earls filed the federal complaint against the state Judicial Standards Commission, which by law is charged with investigating possible violations of the state’s code of conduct for the judiciary, and its members. She wants a judge to declare that the panel can no longer examine her speech “on matters of public interest.”
A Commission official wrote to Earls two weeks ago that she was under investigation for a media interview in which she discussed the Supreme Court’s recent record on diversity. The letter accompanying the lawsuit said the commission had already dismissed an earlier complaint accusing Earls of speaking publicly about some administrative matters that would be considered by the seven-member court.
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The commission can issue a private warning letter to a judge or recommend to the Supreme Court that a judge receive anything from a public reprimand to a suspension or impeachment.
Earls’ lawsuit, filed in Greensboro, says the investigation “resulted in a curtailment of her First Amendment rights” and “interrupted her ability to perform her duties as a judge,” while other judges appeared to have publicly taken unchallenged positions on similar issues can take .
“Any disciplinary action by the Commission has the potential to deter Judge Earls from seeking or being considered for future career opportunities, causing her significant stress and anxiety,” the lawsuit continues.
Earls’ unusual lawsuit, which concerns her formally waiving her confidentiality on the commission cases, comes as the state’s highest court lost a 4-3 seat majority in January following last November’s election results the Democrats switched to a 5-2 Republican majority. Anyone can submit a complaint to the Commission. The name of a prosecutor is not made public and the Commission’s activities, with some exceptions, take place behind closed doors.
In an interview with Law360 published in June, Earls — the only black woman on the court — discussed the court’s decision to end a commission examining fairness and justice in the state court system, and what she says is a shortage of justice officials for minorities is in court.
“I really believe there is an implicit bias at play,” Earls was quoted as saying, adding that “there have been instances where I’ve felt very uncomfortable on the bench because I felt like my peers were a female Lawyer unfairly turning her back.” one who was Black. The
The August 15 letter from Commission Counsel Patricia Flood said the Commission was specifically reopening an inquiry into a complaint dismissed earlier in the year, which examined its public discussion of the court’s administrative affairs in light of the printed interview.
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In that interview, Flood wrote, Earls “appears to suggest that your Supreme Court peers act on racial, gender, and/or political grounds in some of their decisions.” This would potentially violate a section of the code of conduct that requires a judge to “at all times view themselves in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” she added.
But Earls’ lawsuit referred to a portion of the Courts Act that allows judges to “discuss the … legal or governmental system or the administration of justice.” And it quoted part of the interview in which Earls said she was “not claiming that this is conscious, intentional racial hatred,” but that “we all have implicit biases.”
The commission’s executive director, Brittany Pinkham, said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that the commission is impartial and “is required by law to investigate all instances of alleged misconduct by the judiciary and cannot comment on ongoing investigations”.
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The 14-member commission consists of six judges selected by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – two each from the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court and the District Court; four attorneys appointed by the North Carolina State Bar Council; and four non-lawyers, two chosen by the governor and the other two chosen by legislative leaders. There are two other alternate members.
Commission officials can dismiss cases without having to go through a panel of commissioners if they decide the allegations are unfounded.
Earls, a civil rights attorney elected to the court in 2018, has become an opponent of the Republican majority, which includes Chief Justice Paul Newby. She has dissented from decisions by GOP colleagues agreeing to overhaul decisions by the previous Democratic majority that tampered with photo voter ID and voting cards. Both revised judgments were later overturned. The Earls’ seat is up for re-election in 2026.