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America’s two-tiered justice system isn’t new — just don’t talk about it

Confederate statues in courthouse squares send a loud-and-clear message

Confederate statues, like this one saluting Confederate War Dead in Downtown Chatham, Va., is a reminder of the past for Black people seeking justice, columnist Mary C. Curtis writes.
Confederate statues, like this one saluting Confederate War Dead in Downtown Chatham, Va., is a reminder of the past for Black people seeking justice, columnist Mary C. Curtis writes. (Justin Ide / for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Confederate monument outside the courthouse in Gaston County in North Carolina was not erected just after the Civil War ended. Like so many structures the United Daughters of the Confederacy promoted to prop up the lie of the “glorious” Lost Cause, the statue was raised in the early part of the 20th century.

And the intent was clear.

Then-state attorney general and future governor Thomas Bickett, at the 1912 dedication at the monument’s original site, listed what his North Carolina stood for, “the integrity of a whole civilization and a white race,” as reported in the Gastonia Gazette. Bickett praised white supremacy, criticized the right of Black men to vote and justified the Civil War.

Could any Black person entering that courthouse expect justice?

When a new courthouse was built in 1998, the monument was relocated to stand sentry, leaving North Carolinians of every race to wonder how much had really changed? It has been the subject of controversy, but every attempt to remove it, to perhaps assure African-Americans that the justice they receive in that Gaston County courthouse is indeed blind, has been a work in progress, complicated by a North Carolina law passed by a Republican majority legislature in 2015. It prohibits removal of monuments on public property, other than to a place of “similar prominence.”

Gaston County isn’t the only courthouse guarded by a reminder of North Carolina’s Confederate past, yet, raising the specter of observed systemic bias that still might haunt the state’s halls of justice has gotten state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls in trouble.

The justice who was elected — yes, elected — is one of just two Democrats on the seven-member court, and the only African-American woman, and she is in danger of losing her seat. She is being investigated by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission, the judiciary’s ethical body, for comments she made in the legal journal; the investigation could end in sanctions or removal from the bench. 

Talking about the need for diverse staff among clerks and court personnel, mentioning out loud her observations that bias may exist in the court system, well, it’s all a step too far for some who have been questioning Earls since she was elected.

Earls took care not to accuse colleagues of any intentional action, merely noting the “implicit biases” we all share. And that the majority of those making oral arguments to the court have been white is just a fact, one that minorities with business before the court can see with their own eyes.

It’s also true that Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, never faced such scrutiny after speaking quite freely about politics and his colleagues. He told an audience in 2019, before he was the chief justice, that Americans who find fault with the country could “just leave.” And in what was seen as a swipe against Earls, who had won a seat on the court, accused the left of spending $1.5 million “to get their AOC person on the court,” as reported in NC Newsline, an apparent reference to New York progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Newby has never recused himself in cases when he has expressed clear opinions about the issue presented to his court. Newby also has come awfully close to endorsing a fellow conservative running for the court, without rebuke.

But North Carolinians who elected Earls are apparently not supposed to notice such double standards.

Ever since Republicans regained the majority on the state Supreme Court, they have revisited issues such as voter ID requirements and redistricting, and there are moves to get the GOP supermajority in the legislature more involved in picking the people who judge the judges.

If it all sounds familiar, you’ve been paying attention to moves across the country, as Republicans find new ways to rid themselves and the voters of duly elected officials whose politics they abhor, with the judiciary being a prime target.

In Wisconsin, state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz is under attack, despite winning her seat by an 11-point margin. She is being threatened with impeachment – and that’s not a joke. The voters’ will has run into the buzzsaw of a state GOP that seems to believe the only legitimate election result is one in which they come out on top. Even some of the Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, are hesitating. A lawsuit has been filed to halt the movement toward impeachment.

What happened to the trust-the-voters, law-and-order Republican Party? That posture has been revealed for the sham it has been since diverse communities have been able to take part in a system that excluded them for so long.

The American dream? It’s a nightmare for those who fear losing power.

In North Carolina, voters are getting a close-up view of the hypocrisy of a standards committee reaching for the smelling salts when a judge has the audacity to see the figurative and in many cases actual Confederate nostalgia in front of her face, reflected in a judicial system that may not have progressed as much as it believes.

When Earls suggests the need to study how the system can be improved in a way that bolsters confidence in what should be fair and equal justice for all, she should be listened to instead of silenced. That confidence has to be earned, not declared by fiat by those in power. Targeting the lone Black woman on the court doesn’t help — not if legitimacy is the goal.

Earls is not going quietly. She has sued, using her First Amendment protections to combat the ethics panel charges, and she has a lot of support, including from some Republicans who see the move as overreach.

She is speaking up, and why shouldn’t she?

Those reminders of the bad old days on courthouse squares provide a message of their own, one that is loud and clear.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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