On December 1, 2023, WRAL News reported that North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls has been unsuccessful in her latest attempt to stop an ongoing ethics investigation against her. Justice Earls is being investigated by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission over remarks she made criticizing biases within the state’s court system.
The comments in question relate to Justice Earls pointing out racial and gender imbalances on the bench, as well as criticizing some rulings from Republican justices that she claimed were politically motivated rather than grounded in law. Justice Earls, a Democrat, is the only woman of color currently serving on the Supreme Court, where most other justices are white men appointed by Republicans.
Justice Earls filed a lawsuit challenging the investigation as an infringement on her freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. As part of the lawsuit, she sought to pause the investigation until the case could be fully heard in court. However, Federal Judge William Osteen rejected this request, stating Justice Earls was unlikely to prove the investigation itself was unconstitutional.
Justice Earls appealed Judge Osteen’s decision but was again denied when seeking to halt the ethics probe until the appeal could be addressed. In his ruling on November 30, 2023, Judge Osteen, a George W. Bush appointee, acknowledged judges retain some First Amendment rights but noted comments from a Supreme Court justice carry more weight due to their position of authority. He found the investigation into Earls’ remarks was reasonably within the Judicial Standards Commission’s purview.
The origins of the complaint that triggered the investigation are unclear, though some speculate the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, could be involved given tensions with Justice Earls’ more progressive record. If disciplinary violations are found, penalties could range from a private reprimand to removal from the bench.
Justice Earls maintains she was well within her rights to discuss matters of racial and political impartiality in the courts. However, for now, the ethics inquiry will be permitted to continue as the judicial process plays out. A trial on the First Amendment questions is still forthcoming even as Justice Earls’ attempts to intervene immediately have been turned away in court. The investigation remains shrouded in political disagreement between parties at the state’s highest judicial level.
Source: WRAL News