On Tuesday, November 21, 2023, a federal judge denied the request of North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls to stop an ongoing investigation against her by the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. The Commission launched a probe earlier this year into comments Earls made about diversity within the state’s court system.
Earls, one of two Democrats on the seven-member high court, spoke to the legal news site Law360 in June. In the interview, she discussed her views on implicit biases among some of her colleagues on the bench. Earls also brought up concerns over the lack of Black law clerks being hired to work for the justices. Additionally, she commented on the new conservative majority’s decision to disband a commission tasked with examining racial and gender inequality in the judicial branch.
In response to Earls’ interview, the 16-member Judicial Standards Commission sent her a letter in August notifying her that it would begin looking into whether her public statements violated portions of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct. The code prohibits judges from engaging in behavior or actions that could damage public trust and confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.
Earls then filed a federal lawsuit against the commission arguing its investigation amounted to an infringement on her constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. She concurrently sought a preliminary injunction from the court to halt the ethics probe while the litigation progressed.
However, on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Osteen rejected Earls’ request for an injunction. In his ruling, Osteen said that Earls would have adequate opportunity to raise her First Amendment arguments during the standard procedural proceedings and hearings before the Commission. The judge also noted that even if he assessed the merits of the case, Earls’ comments could plausibly be viewed as undermining faith in the impartiality of the judiciary by implying certain justices prioritize ideology over applying the law.
Earls’ attorney, Pressly Millen of Womble Bond Dickinson, expressed dismay with the court’s decision, stating that in their opinion, merely subjecting a judge to investigations for commenting on issues of public importance violates constitutional rights. Millen said Earls now intends to appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For the time being, the ethics committee can carry on examining whether any of Earls’ comments about diversity issues crossed ethical lines set out in the judicial conduct rules.
Anita Earls is a judge of the North Carolina Supreme Court. She assumed office on January 1, 2019. She previously served as the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, as well as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice during the Clinton administration.
A copy of the original filing can be found here.