Under the Dome

She’s fought gerrymandering and voter ID. Now she wants a NC Supreme Court seat.

Anita Earls, a Durham Democrat and civil rights lawyer who has challenged NC lawmakers redistricting plans, voter ID law and election restrictions, is campaigning for a seat on the NC Supreme Court.
Anita Earls, a Durham Democrat and civil rights lawyer who has challenged NC lawmakers redistricting plans, voter ID law and election restrictions, is campaigning for a seat on the NC Supreme Court. N&O file photo

Anita Earls, a lawyer who has played a major role in lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s redistricting plans as well as its voter ID law and other voting restrictions, wants to be a state Supreme Court justice.

The 57-year-old Democrat from Durham announced her candidacy for the one seat on the seven-member bench that will be open in the 2018 elections.

Barbara Jackson, a Republican, holds the seat at a time when the Republican-led General Assembly is contemplating major changes to how North Carolina judges make it to the bench.

It’s unclear whether there will be judicial elections next year. Lawmakers have canceled the May primaries for all judicial races, a move that could bring many candidates out for one seat. The lawmakers also have considered proposals to do away with election of judges and put the selection process in the hands of a few, instead of voters.

Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, announced her plans Wednesday at the state Democratic Party headquarters. Legislators and other civil rights lawyers were by her side as she said some of the proposed changes to the courts are what prompted her to run.

Why she’s running

“I passionately believe in the importance of the right to vote, and that an independent judiciary is crucial to the balance of powers necessary to maintain democratic government of, by and for the people,” Earls said. “... In these times, I am seeing how those values are under attack, and I admire the determination of ordinary people who take great risks to stand up for their rights.”

In her recent travels around the state, Earls said she tells people who are concerned about North Carolina “to continue to believe that they can make a difference by engaging in our democracy.”

“Yet too often this political process feels like a powerful few rigging the system against a powerless many,” Earls said. “In light of recent attacks on the independence of North Carolina’s judiciary, and on the right of all citizens to cast a ballot that is counted equally, it is clear to me that I have to not just talk the talk, but also must have the courage to walk the walk.”

Republicans dominate both chambers of the General Assembly, holding 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats. Their numbers allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. The state Supreme Court this year shifted to a 4-3 Democratic majority after Democrat Mike Morgan defeated incumbent Republican Justice Bob Edmunds.

Earls said she would lessen her role with the lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts as racial and partisan gerrymandering, phasing out by the end of the year. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which she founded, will continue its work on social justice issues, she said. The board of directors is aware of her plans to campaign for a seat on the state’s highest court, and is making plans for what happens after she resigns as executive director.

Can an advocate be a judge?

In addition to her work at the Durham-based coalition, Earls also has taught at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland. She has served on the Equal Access to Justice Commission and the state Board of Elections.

While on the elections board, Earls said, the members worked to hold Democrats and Republicans accountable. She was part of a board that looked into the campaign finances of former Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, and voted to recommend a criminal probe into the matter.

“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,” Earls said.

Earls said she thought that her work challenging North Carolina lawmakers on redistricting and election laws would not make it difficult to sit on a court that could preside over cases with similar issues. She said she would look to the law to guide her.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, tweeted that Earls “is a threat to voters” because she represented challengers to political maps who sought to have courts call a special election for the legislature this year using new districts. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that 28 state House and Senate districts drawn in 2011 were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, but did not order a special election.

Woodhouse wrote that Earls tried to “erase” votes cast in 2016 that elected lawmakers to two-year terms.

The federal judges presiding over questions about the new maps cited time constraints as their reason for not calling a special election.

“Democrat Anita Earls went to court and said 3 million people in NC should have their votes thrown in the garbage. SCOTUS rejected. So will NC voters,” Woodhouse tweeted.

The federal judges presiding over the case questioned lawmakers’ sincerity when they waited until late August to adopt new district lines and cited time constraints as their reason for not calling a special election.

Woodhouse also weighed in on North Carolina’s voter ID requirement, part of a 2013 law struck down by a court that found the law’s restrictions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Earls represented challengers.

“Dear 65% of NC voters that support voter I.D. Democrat Anita Earls kept you from having this policy. Then tried to erase your vote all together,” Woodhouse posted on Twitter.

Lessons from her parents

As the the daughter of a nurse and a medical technician who built a family in Seattle at a time when their mixed-race marriage was illegal in many states, Earls said she hopes to take lessons of their perseverance and courage to remain undeterred by a system that “seemed rigged against them.”

“As a woman of color, and now a grandmother, my ultimate goal is to find the common ground among competing interests, and to ensure the consistent rule of law that best serves everyone,” Earls added.

Earls already has garnered support from prominent North Carolina Democrats.

“Anita’s service to North Carolina is undeniable,” former Gov. Jim Hunt said in a statement. “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.”

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson and former state Supreme Court justice, issued a statement, too. “Anita Earls has the intellect and integrity we need on the North Carolina State Supreme Court. 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.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1