In this year’s elections, voters will be asked to select a candidate to serve an eight-year term as an Associate Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. The candidates on the ballot are incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson, attorney Anita Earls, and attorney Chris Anglin. All three candidates sat down with North Carolina Lawyers Weekly reporter Bill Cresenzo this month to answer an identical slate of questions. As a public service, Lawyers Weekly is making its election coverage free to view online without a subscription. We encourage you to share our coverage with your friends and neighbors who may be seeking more information about the candidates.
Candidate: Anita Earls
How would you describe your judicial philosophy?
It’s the role of the courts to interpret the law and apply it to the facts in the cases and controversies that come before the court. I think that our state Supreme Court has laid out pretty clearly what standards to apply when interpreting constitutions and statutes. They stated very clearly you look to the text of the statutes. What are the words? What do they actually say? You look at the history and intent of either the framers of the constitution or the legislature that wrote the law and then you look at the court’s own precedents, the previous interpretation of that statute, and that’s how you determine what the law is and apply it to the facts.
What do you believe makes you the best candidate to serve on the bench as an Associate Justice, based on your experience and any other factors that you think are important in a good justice?
It is my record of being a civil rights attorney for 30 years in North Carolina that makes me qualified to serve in this role. I was in private practice for 10 years in Charlotte at the beginning for my career with Julius Chambers’ firm. I had jury trials in superior and federal courts. Another really important aspect of my experience is that I practiced law in a wide range of areas–civil rights cases, family law cases, child custody, child support, divorce, personal injury, automobile accidents, and some medical malpractice. I also handled a lot of employment discrimination work, voters’ rights, and criminal defense. Beyond that, I was deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and that gave me the opportunity to see how civil rights are carried out across the country. I worked for the North Carolina Center for Civil Rights and I taught a civil and political rights course. Then I decided to found the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. I think this gives me a perspective on not only the different areas of law and how to treat cases, but also a respect for the challenges facing North Carolinians across the state. I have represented people from Asheville to Hyde County in the east and everywhere in between. That qualifies me to sit on the Supreme Court.
The General Assembly recently reinstituted partisan elections for Supreme Court races. What are your thoughts on how the shift to partisan elections might affect the state’s judiciary?
Certainly I think that we have seen an increased politicization of our judiciary, which is not exactly the same as making the race partisan. I say that because from my observations from doing voting rights work, voters want as much information as possible about candidates. Every lawyer in the state has been asked, “How do I know who to vote for?” because voters don’t know how to evaluate judges. In the 2016 election, the Court of Appeals races were partisan and the Supreme Court race was non-partisan. 500,000 fewer people participated in the Supreme Court race. It is counterintuitive. You would think that if people cared about the Court of Appeals they would care about the Supreme Court. One difference between the two was there were no partisan labels on the Supreme Court. That shows me that voters find party labels useful. And I am all for an informed electorate. The fact that the race is partisan doesn’t trouble me nearly as much as how the judiciary has been politicized. That I see happening through things like the actions of the General Assembly saying that they think that because they write the laws they should choose the judges. The [executive director] of the Republican Party saying if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule in their favor, they will impeach them. These are the kinds of actions that politicize the courts in a way that is not healthy for our democracy.
If elected, what would you do to ensure that all citizens can be assured that the court is handling its duties in an objective and non-partisan manner?
I take very seriously the importance of equal justice under the law, and that means equal justice based on race, based on gender, and based on party affiliation, as well as any other differences that people might have. I have a record of non-partisan actions in my professional activities. I was on the State Board of Elections for two and a half years, appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue. I was part of the board that unanimously voted to fine Gov. Mike Easley for campaign finance violations and refer him to the district attorney. We applied the campaign finance laws equally to Democrats and Republicans. Similarly, for the past 18 years I have been either working at or directing a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We served the community, no matter what their partisan affiliation. If a voter called up our organization and said “I am having trouble voting today,” we did not ask what their party was. We tried to make sure they exercised their right to vote. I believe my career has been about my commitment to the principle that our democracy is strongest when every voice is heard.
We’ve written extensively about the low volume of opinions authored by the Supreme Court in recent years, particularly for civil cases. Do you think the court is producing a sufficiently robust body of case law, and if not, what do you think the court can or should do to increase its output?
I have heard from lawyers across the state that the Supreme Court is not taking enough cases, that there are too many issues that get decided by one panel, the Court of Appeals. That seems to be a very common concern. It also seems to be addressable by taking more cases and increasing the justices’ workload, and it is incumbent upon us to do that. As judges, we are public servants, and we owe it to the people to work as hard as we can.
We’ve also written extensively about the ongoing crisis in access to justice. What do you think the state’s judiciary can do or should do to ensure that all citizens have and can afford access to justice?
We have had leadership among the Supreme Court justices in creating the Equal Access to Justice Commission. I was on that commission when it was first formed and served as secretary for nine years. The commission has made enormous strides in terms of changing various policies. For example, one of the things it did early on is to make IOLTA mandatory. All law firms had to participate in IOLTA, and, unfortunately, funding for it decreased as interest rates fell, but that is an example of the kind of program that can provide attorneys to people who cannot afford them. The commission is a well-respected body of multiple stakeholders. I think it’s incumbent on the judiciary to continue participating in that fashion and bringing to light what the issues are and then proposing solutions that can work.
Are there any lawyers or judges, either ones you’ve worked with personally or whose work you admire, who have especially influenced your views on how to be a good judge?
Certainly there are judges that I respect highly and I hope to emulate. I would point to Chief Justice Henry Frye and Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson on the state Supreme Court. On the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. All four of these honorable and highly-regarded individuals have demonstrated how to bring to bear on the law their true sense of what justice is and their passion for equality.
What would you consider to be your proudest day or moment of your career to date?
I have to honestly say that one of the proudest moments of my career was watching a lawyer who I hired out of law school nine years ago to work at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice last fall argue a case in the U.S. Supreme Court and knowing that I was laying the path for the next generation.
Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you think it would good for voters to know to help them make their decision?
I want voters to know that my commitment to equal justice under the law comes from both the 30 years of civil rights work that I have done and from my personal experience of growing up in a mixed-race family at a time when initially it was illegal for my parents to be married, so I understand the impact on families and communities when the justice system fails us. What that means in real terms is that it is vitally important to me that everyone whose case comes before the court is treated equally and that there is no favoritism. I will be a justice who rules without fear or favor. No matter what the entity–big business, special interests–that every litigant is treated the same.