Civil Rights Advocate Elected to North Carolina Supreme Court

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A voter arrives as a worker walks past during early voting at a polling place in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Democrat Anita Earls, founder and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court on Tuesday in the Tar Heel State’s “blue moon” election, so-called since once every 12 years there is an election with no high-profile statewide races on the ballot. Earls is the daughter of a black father and a white mother. 

Her victory underscores the importance state-level judicial decision-making as the Supreme Court of the United States appears headed into a period of retrenchment on civil rights. 

Yet in her remarks Tuesday night, Earls turned to Washington as she condemned President Trump’s assertion that he can strike down the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship through an executive order. 

“The president is sworn, just as I will be, to uphold the Constitution. For him to openly say that essentially he can negate a constitutional amendment by executive order,” Earls tells The American Prospect, “that’s just fundamentally contrary to the notion that no one is above the law.”

Two factors propelled Earls—a former Department of Justice Deputy Assistant Attorney General and member of the state Board of Elections—out of the trenches and on a path to fight for civil rights from the inside. The first was her concern that the federal Supreme Court would no longer be “a strong avenue of protection for our civil rights.” Second, the Republican-dominated state legislature's continuous attempts to curb the judiciary’s independence also provided Earls with a strong motivation. In her campaign, she hammered home a message that the judiciary serves as an important check on the legislative and the executive branches when they try to step outside constitutional boundaries.

For several decades, Earls has been a leading force in the fight against voter suppression in a state with a pernicious history of denying the franchise to African Americans. Journalist Barry Yeoman has called her the “go-to attorney in North Carolina for beating back assaults on voting rights.” She helped build the “monster voting suppression” voting rights case that led the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude in 2016 that North Carolina had “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” 

That reputation should explain why GOP state lawmakers did everything they could to put roadblocks in her path, passing several laws in the months before the election that were designed to make life difficult for a Democratic candidate like Earls. They ended primaries for judicial elections; instituted a drawing for ballot position that placed Earls’s name last in the list of three candidates on the ballot; then moved the statewide judicial race below local races instead of directly after federal ones; and got into a fight that ended up in the courts over the party affiliation of a Democrat-turned-Republican candidate. (In 2017, state lawmakers changed the contest from a nonpartisan election to a partisan one: All three candidates would have to list a political affiliation on the ballot.)

In Tuesday’s three-candidate race, Earls won with nearly 50 percent of the vote. The incumbent Republican justice, Barbara Jackson, finished with 34 percent of the vote.

The Republicans’ machinations did not surprise Earls. “This a party has focused its legislative attention on staying in power rather than doing things that would benefit the people of North Carolina,” she says.

For a first-time candidate with few personal financial resources to run a statewide race, Earls pulled together an impressive fundraising effort, banking almost $1.5 million (with many small donations from individuals contributing $100 or less)—three times more than Jackson.

Earls held a number of town halls, but discussions of judicial races don’t generate large turnouts. “That’s why we end up with this system where money plays such a big role,” Earls says, “because there is no other way to get in front of voters to show who you are and what you stand for.” 

But this blue moon election did propel more North Carolina voters to the polls. According to Earls, during the last blue moon election in 2006 only 37 percent of the state’s eligible voters showed up at the polls; this year, 52 percent did. Republicans lost their super-majorities in the legislature, which means they won’t be able to override vetoes by Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat. The state’s Democratic congressional candidates also won roughly 100,000 more votes than their Republican opponents, though thanks to the Republican gerrymandering of districts, the GOP retained its nine-to-three majority in the state’s congressional delegation. (The state is under a court order to redistrict.)

Unlike Georgia, where voter suppression tactics have been on vivid display in recent weeks, Earls had not yet heard of any similar concerns beyond glitches that can happen during any election in North Carolina.

Earls’s victory gives state’s high court a five-to-two Democratic majority. She will be sworn in as the 100th justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in early January.

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