As a conservative commentator, I rarely find agreement with Democrat NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls. However, today I do. The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission should not be in the business of policing political speech.
As reported by Carolina Journal, Earls — the most liberal and outspoken member of the state Supreme Court — has filed a federal lawsuit against the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. She argues that the commission violated her First Amendment speech rights.
According to the court filing, “Justice Earls has been subjected to a series of months-long intrusive investigations, initiated by one or more anonymous informers, concerning her comments regarding operation of the North Carolina judicial system. Those comments, including those concerning diversity in the North Carolina judicial system, are fully protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as core political speech.”
Earls is being investigated for her remarks made to news media opining on the lack of diversity among the Supreme Court’s judicial clerks as well as the elimination of implicit bias training in the courts system.
She accused members of the court of interrupting female lawyers and herself during proceedings.
“When the culture is that male advocates and advocates who reflect the majority of the court, white advocates, when they get more respect, when they are treated better — I think it filters into people’s calculations about who should argue and who’s likely to get the best reception and who can be the most persuasive,” Earls said.
“I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious, intentional, racial animus,” she continued. “But I do think 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 commission informed Earls that her comments may have violated part of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which says judges must conduct themselves “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission was established in 1973 to consider complaints of misconduct or disability against judges of the state’s General Court of Justice and, where appropriate, to make recommendations for public discipline of:
- District Court judges
- Superior Court judges
- Appellate court judges and justices
The Commission also serves as the judicial ethics advisory committee with respect to the Code of Judicial Conduct and is authorized to provide formal and informal advisory opinions regarding application of the Code to specific situations.
I am a fierce critic of Earls based on her failed efforts to remove GOP justices from cases and her (in my view) gross violation of existing Judicial Standards rules. I would note that some of my concerns deal not with her speech rights but her conduct on the bench and dealing with cases after she spoke about certain issues.
Her comments were highly offensive and damaging to the administration of justice. I think under the current rules, Judicial Standards had no choice but to investigate and possibly sanction here.
Earls is not being targeted here. I know GOP judges have been investigated similarly. The staff at Judicial Standards are simply doing their jobs here, under the current rules adopted.
However, the legislature can and should end this madness.
In the closing weeks of the legislative session, the North Carolina General Assembly should make considerable reforms to the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, both in its membership and mission. Most importantly, the legislature needs to end the prior restraint and regulation of judicial political speech.
North Carolina elects its judges. If the legislature and the people of North Carolina decide to alter the state constitution to select judges some other way (extremely unlikely, and I believe unwise), so be it. But until then, our judicial candidates should have full and complete use of their First Amendment rights in judicial campaigns without threats of punishments from a secretive and at times inconsistent regulatory body.
Our judicial candidates should have their political speech solely and exclusively judged by the voters … period.