Civil rights attorney running for NC Supreme Court

Posted November 15, 2017 1:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2017 1:23 p.m. EST

— A longtime civil rights attorney who successfully sued in striking down North Carolina's legislative district boundaries for excessive racial bias announced Wednesday she's running for the state Supreme Court next year.

Anita Earls of Durham, who is seeking the position currently held by Associate Justice Barbara Jackson, also helped challenge North Carolina's 2013 voter identification law and has sued counties over other voting rights matters. The successful redistricting lawsuit forced Republican lawmakers to redraw dozens of General Assembly boundaries last summer.

Earls' candidacy comes as Republicans who control the legislature canceled next May's partisan primary elections for trial and appellate court judgeships up for re-election, setting up only the November 2018 election that could attract multiple candidates to each race.

GOP lawmakers also are considering whether to do away with head-to-head court elections all together, replacing them with retention elections that could include some General Assembly involvement with judicial nominees. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and others fear Republicans are scheming to hijack the judiciary, citing previous judicial election changes as proof.

Speaking outside state Democratic Party headquarters, Earls said she's running now because it's "important to stand up for the right to vote and for the importance of the independent judiciary, and those are things that I see under attack.

"An independent court means that the rules are the same for every North Carolinian, not just insiders or those with great wealth and power," she said. "An independent court means that everyone is held accountable to the rule of law not to the whims of politicians."

Earls, founder and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said her 30-year legal career working for the poor and disenfranchised shows her how important an independent court is to carry out laws fairly to all, not just to the wealthy or politicians.

"The central focus throughout my career has been ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate so that politicians can’t ignore or marginalize any voter in this state, no matter how powerful the politician or how powerless the voter," she said.

Elected in 2010, Jackson is one of three Republicans on the seven-member Supreme Court, which currently has a Democratic majority for the first time in almost 20 years.

Earls, 57, previously worked in private practice and at the North Carolina Center for Civil Rights. She also served briefly on the State Board of Elections.

To focus on campaigning, Earls plans to withdraw by year's end from representing plaintiffs in the legislative redistricting case and in another lawsuit alleging excessive partisanship in how North Carolina's congressional districts were drawn.

In the legislative remapping case, a three-judge federal panel this month ordered an outside expert to propose fixing several House and Senate districts they worry are still unlawful. The partisan gerrymandering trial went to trial last month, but no ruling has been issued.

Earls also will resign from leading the Southern Coalition. While she's been in the spotlight recently fighting laws and maps passed by Republicans, Earls said she knows wearing a robe would require a different role: "I understand the difference between being an advocate and being a jurist, and I want the opportunity to use my experience to help ensure equal justice for all North Carolinians in a new role."

Former Gov. Jim Hunt and 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats, immediately endorsed Earls' candidacy.

"She has been at the forefront of the fight for fair maps and voting rights in our state, and she has dedicated her life to achieving fairness, equality and justice," Hunt said.

"She understands the importance of an independent judiciary and will be a justice that will only make decisions based on the facts and the law," said Butterfield, a former Supreme Court justice.