‘Taking us back to Jim Crow’: Black lawyers say NC Supreme Court investigation motivated by racism

A state commission’s investigation into a sitting North Carolina Supreme Court justice is just the latest attempt by conservative politicians to diminish Black people’s political power, a group of Black lawyers and politicians said Wednesday.

They gathered to support Justice Anita Earls, who on Tuesday sued the state’s Judicial Standards Commission to try to stop the investigation targeting her.

That investigation — which has the potential to remove Earls from office — is based on recent comments she made criticizing racial and gender bias within the state courts system.

Dawn Blagrove, who leads the civil rights group Emancipate NC, said the investigation is not only an attempt to remove Earls from office, but is part of a broad, Republican-backed effort to silence Black people and politicians with recent bills and laws making it easier for police to charge protesters with felony crimes, or to enact stricter voting rules.

“We are currently under a regime that is dead set on taking us back to Jim Crow,” she said.

A spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger pushed back on the criticism Wednesday.

“What we heard today was false, inflammatory rhetoric from activists struggling to cope with their preferred candidates losing 14 of the last 14 statewide judicial races,” Berger spokesman Randy Brechbiel said.

The investigation into Earls is being conducted by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, which for years has been tasked with policing ethical complaints against judges. Earls is not the first high-profile judge to face an investigation, nor is she the first to suggest such an investigation was motivated by politics.

Brittany Pinkham, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment on the details of Earls’ investigation and subsequent lawsuit. But she defended the commission’s work as being guided by state laws and ethics rules, not politics.

“The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission is a nonpartisan investigative body comprised of members appointed by the chief justice, governor, General Assembly, and State Bar Council,” Pinkham wrote in a statement to WRAL on Tuesday. “The Commission is statutorily obligated to investigate all instances of alleged judicial misconduct and cannot comment on pending investigations.”

State Rep. Renée Price, a Democrat from Orange County, accused the investigation of protecting an “agenda of discrimination” in state government. Earls is only being investigated because she “had the audacity to speak about racism and sexism in North Carolina’s criminal justice system,” Price said.

“What we are seeing right now take place is the literal pulling back of North Carolina, to a hundred year-old attempt to remove Black individuals from elected office,” added Marcus Bass, who leads the group Advance Carolina.

Politics and race at the Supreme Court

It’s unclear who requested the investigation into Earls; such details are kept confidential to encourage people to come forward. The commission’s leadership is closely tied to Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby. He’s in charge of picking the commission’s chair and vice chair, who in turn are in charge of hiring and firing the staff who run the investigations.

Newby has not responded to requests for comment. Newby, a Republican, and Earls, a Democrat, have a history of public disagreements and criticisms — in public speeches as well as their legal writings.

In 2019 Newby gave a speech claiming Earl’s presence on the court worried him so much that it kept him awake at night: “I lose sleep at night thinking, what would it be like if we had no one to hold accountable those that want to cause social change through our judicial branch,” he said.

He didn’t mention Earls directly by name but did say he was talking about the winner of the 2018 Supreme Court election. Earls won the only race on the ballot that year.

Newby didn’t respond to requests for comment from WRAL when those comments were first reported in 2019. There’s no evidence the Judicial Standards Commission investigated him for that speech. Earls has been told she’s being investigated now, due to her own public comments, for failing to act “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Earlier this year, Earls wrote a harsh dissent against an opinion — authored by Newby — which she said intentionally “turns a blind eye to evidence of racial discrimination” within the criminal justice system.

That dissent does not appear to be part of the investigation into her, although she is being investigated for an interview with a legal news service along a similar theme, in which she lamented Newby’s decision to end the state court system’s implicit bias training program.

Earls was co-chair of a racial equity task force, along with Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, that in 2021 recommended a number of changes to address systemic racism in the justice system — including by having judges, prosecutors and others take part in bias training.

Blagrove said that instead of investigating Earls for making public comments about race and gender bias in the courts, perhaps top leaders should listen to what she has to say.

We have to go to courthouses all over North Carolina and walk past Confederate statues, entering the halls of justice, where we hope we will find justice,” she said. “But we’re very often finding a continuation of the sentiments that erected those Confederate statues in the first place.”

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