NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls: ‘Good turnout can overcome a bad gerrymander’

By: - June 15, 2023 12:14 pm

North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls appears on a digital webinar to talk about the importance of state courts and how they can protect people’s rights.

Anita Earls was unsure about the federal courts after the 2016 presidential election. A civil rights attorney, she was unclear about whether the federal judiciary would uphold the values she’d spent her career defending.

“It seemed to me important to also remember that state courts are a way to protect our rights,” Earls said during webinar Wednesday night hosted by Pro-Choice North Carolina. “And because my career had been about protecting people’s rights, it seemed only logical to care about and think about our state court.”

Earls was elected to the North Carolina in Supreme Court in 2018. When she joined the court in 2019, the partisan makeup was five Democrats and two Republicans. Four years later, that makeup has switched, with five Republicans firmly in control of the court. The Democrats, for the time being, are in the political wilderness on the high court. But Earls encouraged people to keep an open mind.

Her colleague, Michael Morgan, is retiring at the end of his term next year. Earls is up for reelection in 2026. Three more seats are up for grabs in 2028.

“Before the end of this decade, there is the possibility to flip the court yet again, and be back to five Democrats, two Republicans,” Earls said, a bullish view of Democratic candidates’ prospects. Change can happen more quickly on North Carolina’s highest court, where judges serve eight-year terms, than on the U.S. Supreme Court, where they serve lifetime appointments.

Earls chose her words cautiously in the discussion — “I’m only going to talk about partisanship as a way of signaling change. I’m not intending any normative judgments,” she said at one point — but explained the court’s role in considering politically charged issues. The hourlong conversation focused mostly on abortion rights and gerrymandering, two topics in vogue at the legislature and in the Supreme Court.

Last month Republicans passed a sweeping bill that tightens the state’s abortion laws and makes it harder for women to terminate a pregnancy and exercise control over their bodies. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill before a crowd of abortion-rights supporters in Raleigh. It wasn’t enough. Republicans overrode him.

Less than a month before the abortion bill, the Supreme Court reversed prior rulings that had been issued in 2022 on gerrymandering and the state’s voter ID law, siding with GOP lawmakers. Earls authored a scathing 71-page dissent in the gerrymandering case, writing that her Republican colleagues were telling “North Carolinians that the state constitution and the courts cannot protect their basic human right to self-governance and self-determination.”

Earls said Wednesday that the decision to rehear the cases was extraordinary, something that hasn’t happened in the court’s 200-year history. The impact of those decisions is hard to say, Earls said, because maps will be redrawn.

“What I want people to know, from my experience of doing voting rights work for almost 30 years, basically, is that good turnout can overcome a bad gerrymander,” Earls said. “If we had a wave election in this state in which the voter turnout was much higher than it has been, then the gerrymandering couldn’t have the same effect. So that’s important to keep in mind and not get discouraged.”

The importance of state courts

Earls repeatedly talked about the importance of state courts at all levels. She noted that three seats on the Court of Appeals will be up for election in 2024. (Republicans won all four seats in last year’s election.) One of the candidates is Allison Riggs, whom Gov. Roy Cooper appointed last year.

“Currently she is the only woman on either of our statewide appellate courts of childbearing age, which seems significant to me,” said Earls.

State courts have a huge impact on residents’ lives, Earls said. Child custody, environmental issues, business disputes, utility rates, employment cases, medical malpractice: all these issues are regularly considered by judges on state benches.

“There really [are] a lot of ways in which you would actually end up in state court,” Earls said.

And yet, Earls said, for such an important issue, many voters rely on party affiliation when casting a ballot in an election, because information on state judges can be so difficult to come by.

“When you get in the voting booth, you’re having to choose between a Democrat and a Republican in judicial races now, from trial court all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Earls said. “And I think that most voters decide based on that party identifier.”

In other words, people decide how to vote because they project values onto judicial candidates based on what political party they belong to. But Earls said that’s not always a perfect metric. She pointed to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that Alabama’s congressional maps violate the Voting Rights Act. (The morning after the webinar, the U.S. Supreme Court issued another surprise decision that affirmed tribal sovereignty.)

“To me, that’s a reminder that you think you might be able to tell how judges are going to rule based on the party, but at the end of the day it’s important to use the courts,” Earls said. “Bring your cases to court, prove your facts and argue. I think that’s an important aspect of citizenship.”

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.