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March 19, 2018
Anita Earls wants to be a North Carolina supreme court justice. To get there, the civil rights lawyer has to win an election in North Carolina, one of eight states that select supreme court justices through elections rather than a nomination.
The Durham-based attorney says she is running for two reasons. First, she says, she learned through her work on gerrymandering and voter identification laws in the state that the legislature was “determined to try to control the courts.” Being a justice will help to “uphold the importance of an impartial and independent judiciary.”
Second, she “wanted to try civic engagement from the other side, if you will.”
There are a few head-spinning complications in this venture. North Carolina, with a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature, is in many ways representative of the political divisions around the country. That has led to a battle over whether the state will hold a primary election for the judicial offices. Last fall, the North Carolina general assembly voted to cancel primaries for judicial elections. But U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles in January granted an injunction reinstating the primaries. Then in February, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel stayed the earlier injunction, meaning that the primaries were off, at least for now. (The Richmond-based Fourth Circuit will hear the case March 20, but may not issue a decision until early April.)
The lack of primaries would mean that candidates for the state supreme court would not have to file to run until June, and the race might include dozens of candidates, preventing each party from nominating a single choice.
“This was one of the games they’ve been playing with the process in order to tamper with the outcome,” Earls says.
Much of Earls’ motivation comes from the catalyst of her life experiences. Born in 1960, she grew up in a mixed-race family in the state of Washington. Her African American father and white mother moved west because Washington was a state that allowed interracial marriages, which was not the case in many southern states. Even so, Jim Crow laws were plentiful throughout the country.
That beginning, in short, set the stage for her entry into the law. “I became a lawyer because I could use the law to break down the barriers that people of color face in this country,” says Earls, 58.
After graduating from Williams College and Yale Law School, she made her way to Washington, D.C. In 1998, during the Clinton administration, she was appointed to serve as a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. She also ran the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her years in D.C., she says, gave her a chance to see how civil rights could be enforced at the national level, and “how at the national level you get a sense of how these issues play out in different places.”
After she moved to North Carolina, she formed the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The nonprofit, unlike the Southern Poverty Law Center, is modeled on the “community lawyer model” not the “impact litigation model,” Earls says. In other words, the goal is to “pursue what people in the community say is important,” she says. Today, more than half of the coalition’s budget is focused on criminal justice issues, although voting rights, youth justice, and environmental justice also are focus areas.
At the coalition, Earls became well known in the state as the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in North Carolina v. Covington, a landmark case against racial gerrymandering. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed in June 2017 that 28 of North Carolina’s House and Senate districts were unconstitutional racial boundaries.
Voter identification legislation was another of Earls’ focus areas. One battle involved the state’s 2013 election law, which imposed a voter ID requirement, cut back on early voting, and eliminated same-day voter registration, a law that was struck down by the Fourth Circuit in 2016. (Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s decision, although the Republican-majority legislature is likely to continue to try to rewrite voting laws.)
Many voting rights issues are still being hammered out by the state supreme court, Earls says.
In February, America Votes awarded Earls the Cecile Richards Progressive Leader Award, named for the president of Planned Parenthood and one of the founders of America Votes, for her work on voting rights.
At the end of last year, Earls resigned from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to run for the state supreme court seat held by Republican Barbara Jackson.
The Republican-controlled legislature, she says, was trying to control the courts and saying they didn’t trust the judges by trying to eliminate judicial elections altogether. In North Carolina, she says, elections remove the decision-making process from a legislature trying to influence the courts.
Earls hopes to win the Democratic primary, if there is one. The legislature is “hoping that multiple Democrats will file and split the ticket,” she says. A ballot with 15 or 20 names could mean that the eventual winner could take the spot with a small percentage of the vote.
Even without a primary to winnow the candidates, “I’m optimistic that voters in our state will see through these maneuvers and that people who care about having a fair democracy and having the right to vote will support me,” Earls says.
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