North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, the only Black woman on the court, filed a federal lawsuit this week accusing a state commission of violating her freedom of speech after she spoke out about racial bias in the state’s judicial system.
Earls’ lawsuit against the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, filed Tuesday, alleges that the panel attempted to silence her with “a series of months-long intrusive investigations” in retaliation over a June interview she gave criticizing the court’s lack of diversity and the effect that has on proceedings.
The lawsuit shoots down claims from the commission that Earls, who has been on the court since 2019, potentially violated court rules requiring her to act “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” saying that in her view, “that public confidence in the judiciary is compromised when the court system does not reflect the population it serves.”
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls has been criticized for speaking out about bias and the lack of diversity in the state's judicial system.
In her June comments to Law360, a subscription legal news service, Earls pointed out what she believed to be “implicit biases” among her peers on the state’s Supreme Court, which has a new conservative majority. She noted the small number of Black law clerks hired, a Black litigator being “attacked unfairly” by her fellow justices, an end to racial equity trainings for the court and the disbanding of a commission that examined racial and gender inequality in the state’s judicial system.
Earls’ lawyers argued that in her interview, she “took pains to point out that she was ‘not suggesting that any of this is conscious, intentional, racial animus’ but that ‘our court system, like any other court system, is made up of human beings, and I believe the research that shows that we all have implicit biases.’”
The lawsuit also notes that Earls never accused her colleagues of making biased rulings in cases that came before them.
The notice of investigation the commission sent her, along with previous probes it conducted into her comments, “led to a chilling of her First Amendment rights,” her lawsuit asserts, as she felt compelled to turn down other speaking and writing opportunities because of the commission’s investigations.
The commission said in a statement to The News & Observer, a regional North Carolina newspaper based in Raleigh, that it would not comment on pending litigation.