Civil rights attorney running for North Carolina high court

November 15, 2017

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2013 file photo, Southern Coalition for Social Justice director Anita Earls, who is representing the NAACP, makes a point during her presentation in Raleigh, N.C. Earls is running for the state Supreme Court next year. She announced plans Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at state Democratic Party headquarters to run for an eight-year term in 2018. (Takaaki Iwabu/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A longtime civil rights attorney who successfully sued in striking down North Carolina legislative district boundaries for excessive racial bias announced Wednesday she’s running for the state Supreme Court next year.

Anita Earls of Durham, who is seeking the position currently held by Associate Justice Barbara Jackson, also helped challenge North Carolina’s 2013 voter identification law and has sued counties over other voting rights matters. The successful redistricting lawsuit forced Republican lawmakers to redraw dozens of General Assembly boundaries last summer.

Earls’ candidacy comes as Republicans who control the Legislature canceled next May’s partisan primary elections for trial and appeals court judgeships up for re-election because lawmakers are debating whether to remap judicial election districts. The cancellation means there will only be a November 2018 election that could attract multiple candidates to each race.

GOP lawmakers also are considering whether to do away with head-to-head court elections all together, replacing them with retention elections that could include some General Assembly involvement with judicial nominees. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and others accuse Republicans of scheming to hijack the judiciary, citing previous judicial election changes as proof. GOP legislators dismiss such allegations.

Speaking outside state Democratic Party headquarters, Earls said she’s running now because it’s “important to stand up for the right to vote and for the importance of the independent judiciary, and those are things that I see under attack.”

Earls, founder and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said her 30-year legal career working for the poor and disenfranchised shows her how important an independent court is to carry out laws fairly to all, not just to the wealthy or politicians.

“I believe my record demonstrates that I have unflinching dedication to the principle of equality before the law,” Earls said.

Elected in 2010 and seeking re-election, Jackson is one of three Republicans on the seven-member Supreme Court, which currently has a Democratic majority for the first time in almost 20 years.

Earls, 57, previously worked in private practice and at the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights. She also served briefly on the State Board of Elections.

To focus on campaigning, Earls plans to withdraw by year’s end from representing plaintiffs in the legislative redistricting case and in another lawsuit alleging excessive partisanship in how North Carolina’s congressional districts were drawn.

In the legislative remapping case, a three-judge federal panel this month ordered an outside expert to propose fixing several House and Senate districts they worry are still unlawful. The partisan gerrymandering trial went to trial last month but no ruling has been issued.

Earls also will resign from leading the Southern Coalition. While she’s been in the spotlight recently fighting laws and maps passed by Republicans, Earls said she knows wearing a robe would require a different role: “I understand the difference between being an advocate and being a jurist.”

On Wednesday, Earls’ campaign quickly announced endorsements from top Democrats such as former Gov. Jim Hunt and current U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, an ex-state justice. The state Republican Party said in a release that adding Earls to the court would “be catastrophic for our state” and criticized her unsuccessful effort to get judges to order special General Assembly elections this fall under new districts.

Update hourly