On Tuesday, August 29, 2023, Associate Justice Anita S. Earls of the North Carolina Supreme Court filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. The lawsuit alleges violations of her First Amendment rights and seeks declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.

The case is entitled “Anita S. Earls v. North Carolina Judicial Standard Commission,”

Justice Earls claims that she has been under an intrusive investigation by the Commission following statements she made about the lack of diversity in the state’s judicial system. The allegations stem from an interview published on May 17, 2023, in which she discussed various aspects of diversity within the North Carolina legal system. The lawsuit filed by Justice Earls contends that her comments, including those addressing racial and gender disparities in the court system, are protected as core political speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct is also cited in the complaint, asserting that it permits judges to speak about the legal system and the administration of justice.

The heart of the matter revolves around whether Justice Earls’ comments, which shed light on perceived imperfections and unfairness in the judicial system, should be subject to investigation and potential punishment by the Commission. The Commission, which oversees the ethical conduct of judges in the state, has recently indicated that Justice Earls’ comments could violate a provision of the Code related to maintaining public confidence in the judiciary. In response to this, the lawsuit of Earls seeks a judicial declaration that any investigation into Justice Earls’ comments violates her First Amendment rights. Additionally, it aims to secure an injunction, both preliminary and permanent, to prevent the Commission from further infringing upon her right to free speech on matters of public concern.”

The complaint for declaratory judgment states:

“The First Amendment allows Justice Earls to use her right to free speech to bring to light imperfections and unfairness in the judicial system. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the Commission from investigating and punishing her for doing so,”

According to the complaint, the consequences of these actions have not only restricted Justice Earls’ freedom of speech but have also disrupted her ability to fulfill her responsibilities as a Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Understandably, these actions have taken a significant emotional toll on her as she navigates the Commission’s unpredictable stance on what judges can or cannot express regarding critical public matters related to the justice system. Justice Earls contends that the inconsistency of the Commission’s decisions becomes evident when observing that other judges seemingly face no repercussions for publicly addressing similar issues.

The complaint for declaratory judgment continues:

“Any discipline from the Commission has the potential to derail Justice Earls from seeking or being considered for any future professional opportunities, which causes her considerable stress and anxiety.”

Justice Earls believes that the Commission, as detailed above, is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as they seek to regulate speech, especially protected political speech. Justice Earls added that these actions are also in contravention of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Justice Earls asks the court to rule that it is unconstitutional to investigate or punish her for her statements on matters of public concern, including those she made in the Interview. She also wants the court to stop any future investigation or punishment for such statements by issuing both temporary and permanent orders. She also seeks payment for her lawyers under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and any other help that the court thinks is appropriate.

On March 16, 2023, AbusiveDiscretion reported that Justice Anita Earls might have violated the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct by her involvement with the Taskforce for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC), which she co-chaired. TREC was established in 2020 and proposed 125 recommendations that some critics viewed as too lenient on criminal justice. Some claimed that Justice Earls could have conflicts of interest in cases related to TREC’s recommendations and that she should recuse herself or get written consent from both parties, as required by North Carolina’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

Judge Earls obtained her J.D. from Yale Law School, She is an Associate Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which is located at 2 E Morgan St., Raleigh, NC 27601, and can be reached at 919-831-5700. Her info can be found on ballotpedia.org.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.