When you take a seat on the state Supreme Court, you aren’t simply a judge, you’re a justice. That title would be especially fitting for Anita Earls.
Earls has sought justice, particularly for the poor, through most of her professional life. She has served as an attorney with the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights and later with the civil rights advocacy organization she created, the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Earls, 58, of Durham, represented plaintiffs who challenged the state’s heavily gerrymandered redistricting maps and others who sued to overturn new state restrictions on voting, including a requirement that voters present a photo ID from a narrow list of valid IDs. Federal courts found for the plaintiffs in both cases, saying the maps were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders and the new election law sought to suppress the black vote.
Now Earls, a Democrat, is seeking to unseat Justice Barbara Jackson, 56, a Raleigh Republican who has served on the state’s Supreme Court since 2011. It is the only seat on the seven-member court up for election. Democrats obtained a 4-3 majority in 2016 with the election of Democrat Mike Morgan. Raleigh attorney Chris Anglin, 32, who in June switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, is also running, but without the support of his adopted party. Anglin says he wants to give moderate Republicans a choice while Republican leaders charge that his real aim is to split the Republican vote to Earls’ benefit.
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Regardless of any political gamesmanship, Earls is the best choice to serve on the state’s highest court on the strength of her credentials alone. A graduate of Williams College and Yale Law School, Earls’ resume includes, in addition to her advocacy work, 10 years in private practice, two years as a deputy U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights and two years on the state Board of Elections.
Earls’ commitment to justice goes deeper than her legal work. Her brother and only sibling was stabbed to death by a woman in 2006 in Washington state. The woman was charged, but the charges were dropped. When Earls, who is biracial, gathered evidence against the woman and urged the district attorney to go forward with the case, she says she was told that the small, rural county wasn’t inclined to take on the expense of a murder trial, especially when it was highly unlikely that a jury would convict a white woman for stabbing a black man.
Being denied justice for her brother, Earls says, deepened her resolve to gain it for others. She founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice the following year.
Republicans argue that Earls’ advocacy weighs against her becoming a justice, a role in which one is expected to be dispassionate and open-minded. Earls says that’s a hollow objection. “Any lawyer who has been litigating is an advocate,” she says. “The only difference is who my clients were.”
Earls also notes that she showed judicial independence as a member of the State Board of Elections. She voted in 2009 to refer the board’s probe of alleged campaign finance violations by former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley to a prosecutor. Easley subsequently pleaded guilty to a felony.
Jackson has been a capable and collegial jurist on the great majority of cases the court decides unanimously, but in those with high political stakes, she has reliably sided with her fellow Republicans.
In the challenge to the state’s redistricting maps, she twice voted with the then 4-3 Republican majority to uphold the maps. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated both rulings.
In the challenge to state funding for school vouchers — a program strongly backed by Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger — Jackson joined a 4-3 Republican majority in 2015 that reversed Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood’s ruling against the program. Hobgood found that giving state funds to private schools without any accompanying standards violated the state Constitution in seven ways. The Supreme Court’s Republican majority nonetheless tortured the law to justify the program.
Jackson, a former Court of Appeals judge, stresses her experience on the court and notes that unlike Earls, “I won’t have a learning curve.” That may be true in technical and procedural aspects, but in terms of justice for the poor and people of color, a new Justice Earls could be the one teaching the court.