On Friday, October 6, 2023, a motion to dismiss was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in the case of Anita S. Earls v. North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission et al. The motion was filed by the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission.

The case is entitled “Anita S. Earls v. North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, et al.,” with case no. 1:23-cv-00734-WO-JEP

On August 29, 2023, Justice Anita Earls of the North Carolina Supreme Court filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, alleging violations of her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit stemmed from an investigation launched by the Commission following Earls’ comments about the lack of diversity in the state’s judicial system. Earls claims that her comments, which addressed racial and gender disparities in the court system, are protected as core political speech under the First Amendment. The lawsuit seeks declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, arguing that any investigation into Earls’ comments violates her right to free speech.

The Commission’s investigation was prompted by an interview published on May 17, 2023, in which Earls discussed various aspects of diversity within the North Carolina legal system. The Commission has indicated that Earls’ comments could violate a provision of the Code of Judicial Conduct related to maintaining public confidence in the judiciary. Earls argues that the Commission’s actions have restricted her freedom of speech and disrupted her ability to fulfill her responsibilities as a Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

In response to the lawsuit, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the action with prejudice, citing the doctrine of judicial abstention established in Younger v. Harris, which states that federal courts should not enjoin ongoing state judicial proceedings. The commission argues that their investigation into Earls’ alleged violation of Canon 2A of the North Carolina Judicial Code is an ongoing state judicial proceeding and therefore falls under the doctrine of judicial abstention.

The motion also argues that the complaint fails to state a legally cognizable claim. The commission contends that Earls’ allegation of retaliation for protected speech does not establish that the commission has taken an adverse action that implicates the First Amendment. Furthermore, they argue that even if the commission’s actions did implicate the First Amendment, the investigation passes strict scrutiny.

The commission also argues that the complaint does not establish that the commission’s application of Canon 2A is unconstitutionally vague and that Earls has not established all of the necessary elements of her Section 1983 claim.

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.