RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Supporters of state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls said Wednesday there’s an effort to “silence” her after the justice filed a lawsuit this week amid investigations into comments she made about the lack of diversity in the state’s judicial system.

In the lawsuit, Earls revealed the state Judicial Standards Commission has spent much of the year investigating her due to what she said in interviews in legal publications and that she could face punishment.

“The honorable Anita Earls had the audacity to speak the truth. In her fight for justice for all people, she had the audacity to speak out about sexism and racism,” said Rep. Renee Price (D-Orange County) at a press conference Wednesday. “The agenda is to silence Justice Anita Earls and subsequently to silence us.”

Earls is African-American and one of two Democrats on the state Supreme Court, which is majority Republican.

Earls claims that the commission violated her rights under both the First and 14th Amendments with months-long investigations about public comments she made about the judicial system, its lack of diversity and her perceptions of its bias against women and people of color.

The Judicial Standards Commission is a non-partisan agency that exists to “consider complaints against judges… and, where appropriate, to make recommendations for discipline,” according to the commission’s website. Those disciplinary actions can vary and can range up to recommending removal from the court.

An attorney for Earls said she received a letter earlier this month from the commission informing her of their intent to investigate her in response to comments she made about the decision to end the Commission on Fairness, the lack of minority judicial clerks and other issues.

The letter noted judges’ requirements to conduct themselves “in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

In a statement, Brittany Pinkham, executive director of the Judicial Standards Commission did not directly address Justice Earls’ lawsuit.

She said, “The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission is a non-partisan investigative body comprised of members appointed by the Chief Justice, Governor, General Assembly, and State Bar Council. The Commission is statutorily obligated to investigate all instances of alleged judicial misconduct and cannot comment on pending investigations.”

Earls’ suit cites a most recent interview with a legal publication, to which the commission responded by sending a letter to her on Aug. 15. That letter said, the suit states, “the Commission indicated its intent to investigate and potentially punish Justice Earls” for discussing “the North Carolina Supreme Court’s recent record on issues relating to diversity.”

The suit says the interview was “prompted by a published study of the race and gender of advocates who argue before the Court.”

The 29-page complaint, filed on her behalf by Womble Bond Dickinson in Raleigh, seeks a declaratory judgment and an injunction barring further investigation about these matters by the commission. She also asks the court to declare these actions unconstitutional. She also wants her legal expenses to be paid by the commission.

“What we are seeing happen to Justice Earls is a harbinger for what’s coming for us all and that is the demise of democracy,” said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC.

The investigations into Earls’ comments come as there’s a proposal by Republicans in the legislature to give themselves more authority to choose who sits on the Judicial Standards Commission. That change could be included in the state budget.

The article that is core to the lawsuit was published May 17 in the state bar association’s “North Carolina Lawyer” and written by Solicitor General Ryan Park and two co-authors. The title was “Diversity and the North Carolina Supreme Court: A Look at the Advocates.” It was based on a 2-year study that found that more than 90% of those who argued in state courts were white and more than 70% were male.

In a follow-up interview in June with the online publication Law360, Earls talked about being a Black female Democrat in a world heavily influenced by white male Republicans, the suit said. She cited Chief Justice Paul Newby’s refusal to appoint new members to the Commission on Fairness and Equity, which the court had created in 2020.

In its letter to Earls, the commission said her comments “appear to allege that your Supreme Court colleagues are acting out of racial, gender, and/or political bias in some of their decision-making,” the lawsuit said.

The suit says that, in March, the commission had issued a similar notice to Earls about remarks she made in public forums, “indicating that ‘a written complaint [had been] filed with the Commission’ and that it was initiating a formal investigation … concerning comments made by Justice Earls regarding ‘matters being currently deliberated in the conference by the Supreme Court’ and discussed by her at ‘two public events,’ and subsequently in a media inquiry.”

Her complaint cites the time and expense of having an attorney address the complaints and the distraction from her role on the NC Supreme Court.