Federal judge refuses to block investigation into NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls

A federal judge refused to halt an investigation into North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls over critical comments she made about diversity in the state court system.

Judge William Osteen Jr. denied Earls’ motion for a preliminary injunction on Tuesday, saying she had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits of her claim.

The case stems from investigations into Earls by the Judicial Standards Commission, which oversees complaints against judges.

This summer, the commission warned Earls, the only Black member of the state Supreme Court, that recent comments she’d made about the predominance of white lawyers and clerks in the Supreme Court could violate the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Earls sued the commission, arguing that its investigation and threats of disciplinary action violate her First Amendment rights.

Osteen’s decision means the commission can continue to investigate Earls, but her lawsuit will also continue to work its way through the court.

How did it get here?

The Judicial Standards Commission informed Earls in August that she may have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by speaking on the lack of diversity in the judicial system.

In an interview with a legal publication, Earls had commented on the fact that most lawyers who argue before the state Supreme Court are white and male.

“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 in the interview.

In its letter to Earls notifying her of the impending investigation, the commission cited a portion of the code that requires judges to conduct themselves “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Only a few weeks later, Earls filed a federal lawsuit against the commission and asked for a preliminary injunction to stop the investigation as the case continued.

This was not the first time Earls had been a subject of an investigation. In March, the commission investigated allegations that she had “disclosed confidential information concerning matters currently being deliberated in conference by the Supreme Court.”

This may refer to comments Earls made in January at a North Carolina Courts Commission meeting. In response to a question from Democratic Rep. Marcia Morey, Earls mentioned the Supreme Court was considering changes that could weaken the Court of Appeals, The News & Observer reported.

The commission ultimately voted to dismiss the March complaint and provide Earls “with a verbal reminder to be mindful of your public comments.”

The commission has the authority to recommend censure, suspension and even removal from office to the state Supreme Court, following an investigation and hearing.