Earls says, “State Supreme Court is not opening up opportunity equally.”

Anita Earls
Anita Earls

By Cash Michaels

January 22, 2023 12:10AM
Cash Michaels
Cash Michaels

One of two African American Democrats on the N.C. Supreme Court warned an MLK holiday weekend audience Saturday that citizens should be concerned about problems of racial disparity in the state’s criminal justice system and challenged them “…to be willing to not be silent.”

Anita Earls, associate justice of the state High Court and former civil rights attorney, was also critical of the judicial body she’s served on for the past four years, saying that currently, when it comes to recruiting and hiring court clerks of color, there are no African American law clerks.

Earls told those attending the MLK Weekend Celebration Breakfast January 14th at St. Mary’s FWB Church in Apex that there are anywhere from 15-18 clerks working for the state Supreme Court presently.

According to the UNC School of Law website, judicial clerkships are “one-to two-year paid, post graduate positions with federal, state and some local judges.” They can be hired by an individual judge or be part of a pool for all judges in a court. Their duties include drafting legal analyses, opinions, and orders from the court, as well as doing the legal research required.

Being a clerk, Earls said, can be a gateway to higher positions of service in the legal community. But if people of color are not properly represented, “that has real implications for our profession.”

She also shared how an internal diversity committee that she participated in last year was disbanded recently. When she asked why, Earls says she was told there was no need for it, and what purpose did it serve.

Then she said she was told it was more important to “hire the most qualified people” for the state judiciary.

Associate Justice Earls credited Gov. Roy Cooper with finding qualified professionals of color to serve in the state’s judiciary. She said 40 percent of the people he has pointed to the bench have been people of color.

“So, we know that this potential is out there, and we know that there is more to be done to make our institutions more representative,’ she said.

Regarding North Carolina’s criminal cases, Justice Earls reminded all of them she co-chairs the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity, which has been tasked to examine the state’s criminal justice system and indicate where there are racial disparities in carrying out equal justice.

She confirmed that there are disparities in the system's outcomes.

There were over a million misdemeanors annually in North Carolina, of which six percent were violent. Traffic offenses made up three quarters of all misdemeanor cases in the state. One out of seven driving age individuals have had their license suspended.

Over 827,000 have been cited for failure to come to court when required. Over 263,000 have been cited for failure to pay traffic fines.

Justice Earls said a lot of these court cases involve people of color who cannot afford the cost of court when they are stopped for minor offenses. When they fail to comply with the court, they ultimately lose their driver’s license, restricting their legal ability to operate a vehicle. Without that, they can’t work, can’t make medical appointments, etc.

When it comes to felony offenses, Earls said unfortunately there is a racial disparity in sentencing. 91.5% of the children under the age of 18 in the NC criminal justice system were sentenced to serve life without parole, were children of color.

Gov. Cooper, after review, is commuting some of those sentences as many of those defendants get older, basing it on the positive work they are doing now, not the crimes they committed in the past.

On the civil justice side, Earls said North Carolina has a lot of legal aid attorneys, but there aren’t enough to meet the tremendous need for representation by low-income people across the state. There are more than 2 million eligible North Carolinians. There is one legal aid attorney for every 8,000 who need them for issues like evictions, family law, foreclosures. The percentage of these cases that end up in court with representation is one or two percent.

Beyond her views of the criminal justice system, she serves on the state's highest court, Associate Justice Earls paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sharing how her father wanted to honor Dr. King by putting a picture of him up in the break room of the hospital where he worked. He was made to take it down.

So, through her family’s history, Earls said she understood the importance of Dr. King’s legacy and felt that we should work towards honoring the human dignity of all people, instead of playing one race against another.

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