Justice Earls Sues Judicial Commission Over Diversity Remarks Probe

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A member of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Justice Anita Earls, has initiated a federal lawsuit against the state’s Judicial Standards Commission. The suit was brought about following the opening of an investigation by the commission into statements made by Earls concerning the lack of diversity within the state’s judicial system.

Earls, one of two Black justices serving on the highest court in the state, defends her remarks on diversity, asserting that they fall under the shield of political speech as per the First Amendment. These comments were made in an interview with the online legal magazine Law360.com, in which she suggested the state Supreme Court should reflect on the reasons behind racial and gender disparities in the state judiciary, as well as potential underlying biases within the system.

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The investigative probe launched by the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission questions whether Earls’ statements contravene the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct. Specifically, the commission has insinuated through a recent letter to Earls that her comments might imply her fellow Supreme Court justices are influenced by racial, gender, or political biases in their decision-making.

A preceding inquiry into accusations against Earls, pertaining to alleged disclosures of confidential court information at public functions and to a reporter, ended with the allegations being dropped but with cautionary advice about public commentary. The commission has, however, opted to reopen this investigation, stimulated by the more recent public dialogue.

In her lawsuit, Earls is urging a federal court to halt any action taken against her, asserting that these actions infringe her constitutional right to voice her views on matters of public significance. She also accused her adversaries of continually promoting intrusive investigations, fuelled by anonymous informants, against her. Earls’ counsel, Pressly Millen, unequivocally stated that her freedom of speech cannot be fettered or limited.

During the disputed interview, Earls had responded to a question about the preponderance of White males presenting oral arguments to the court despite the existing diversity in the state bar and within North Carolina itself. She cited possible unconscious biases as the reason, indicating that White male advocates appearing before the court are often accorded more respect and are treated more favorably, not as a deliberate indication of racial prejudice, but as an inadvertent manifestation of implicit biases within a judicial system made up of human beings.

With re-election coming up in 2026, Earls, a Democrat, could face sanctions reaching up to removal from the bench if deemed to be in violation of the state’s judicial standards. As it stands, the state’s Supreme Court flipped to a 5-2 Republican majority from a 4-3 Democratic majority in 2022.

Reacting to the lawsuit, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission opted not to comment on the specifics. However, the body, made up of members selected by the Chief Justice, Governor, General Assembly, and State Bar Council, affirmed its non-partisan nature, emphasizing its statutory obligation to inspect all allegations of judicial misconduct.