North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is being threatened with sanctions for criticizing the court’s approach to racial and gender discrimination. Earls, the only Black woman on the court, is under investigation by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, a body largely comprised of conservative judges appointed by North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby. On August 15, Earls received a letter from the Commission informing her that she was under investigation on suspicion that her comments to a reporter violated that state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.
Earls responded on Tuesday by suing the Judicial Standards Commission and all 14 members in federal court, alleging that their investigation is a violation of her constitutional right to free speech.
The issue centers around an interview that Earls conducted with a legal publication, Law 360, that was published on June 20. During the interview, Earls was asked about a study by North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park that found “attorneys who argue before the state Supreme Court are 90% white and 70% male.” The reporter asked Earls to explain why so many of the oral advocates who appear before the court are white and male when North Carolina has a diverse population and bar membership.
Earls noted that none of the court’s clerks, a feeder for high-level attorneys who later appear before the court, were Black. She also attributed the racial and gender discrepancies among oral advocates to “implicit bias.” Earls said, “there have been cases where I have felt very uncomfortable on the bench because I feel like my colleagues are unfairly cutting off a female advocate.” She also noted that “in one case there was a Black woman who argued in front of us and I felt like she was being attacked unfairly, not allowed to answer the question, interrupted.” Earls explained that “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.”
Earls made clear that she did not believe the issue was “conscious, intentional, racial animus,” but “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.” [Continue reading…]