Political Speech

North Carolina Justice Ends Suit Against Ethics Panel After It Dismisses Complaint

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is seen in an undated photo
North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is seen in an undated photo. (Courtesy of the North Carolina Judicial Branch/Handout via Reuters)

By The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina Supreme Court justice ended her federal lawsuit against an ethics commission on Wednesday because she said the judicial panel scrutinizing her public comments about the courts, colleagues and race has dismissed a complaint against her.

An attorney for Associate Justice Anita Earls, one of two registered Democrats and the only Black jurist on the seven-member court, filed paperwork to end the lawsuit against the state Judicial Standards Commission and its members.

The commission was investigating comments Earls made in an interview with a legal affairs news website, according to her lawsuit, which took the unusual step of making the commission’s traditionally secret work public. She said the panel’s inquiries were having a chilling effect on her free-speech rights and interfering with her duties as a justice.

In the fall, a trial judge and a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to grant Earls’ request to block the commission’s investigation while her lawsuit continued. But a news release issued by Earls’ attorney Wednesday said the commission notified Earls that it had dismissed the complaint “without recommending to the Supreme Court any disciplinary action.”

The commission, comprising judges and non-attorneys picked by the chief justice, legislative leaders and the governor, is charged with investigating potential violations of the state’s judicial conduct code. The panel can recommend to the Supreme Court that a judge receive anything from a public reprimand to suspension or removal from office. Or it can issue a private letter of caution on its own.

The commission doesn’t comment on investigations, state courts spokesperson Graham Wilson said Wednesday.

“I continue to believe that the First Amendment protects my ability to speak about matters of racial equity in the legal system,” Earls said in her news release. “However, I see no need to continue the litigation since the Commission has dismissed the complaint against me and at this time I no longer face being disciplined by the Court.”

Earls’ attorney Press Millen said the commission’s notice of dismissal is confidential and will not be released.

According to Earls’ lawsuit, a commission staffer wrote her in August that in light of an interview she had with Law360, the panel was reopening an investigation into an earlier complaint that had been dismissed.

In the article, Earls discussed the court’s decision to end a commission looking at fairness and equity in the state court system and what she considered a lack of minority judicial clerks on the court.

“I really do think implicit bias is at play,” Earls was quoted as saying. She added that “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,” including one who was Black. Earls’ allies publicly came to her defense, saying topics on race and gender needed to be addressed.

The commission letter to Earls in August said her comments in the interview potentially could have violated a section of the judicial code directing judges to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Anyone can file a complaint with the commission, and an accuser’s name isn’t made public.

The commission’s lawyers had argued in federal court that Earls’ lawsuit should be dismissed, citing a legal doctrine that discourages federal courts from hearing a case that could interfere with the authority of state courts. And they said commission procedure provided adequate opportunities for someone to raise First Amendment concerns.

Earls, a civil rights attorney first elected to the court in 2018, has been a chief objector to several key rulings issued by Republicans on the Supreme Court since the GOP regained a majority in early 2023. Earls plans to seek reelection in 2026, Wednesday’s news release said.