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NC Supreme Court declines to publicly reprimand two GOP judges, raising questions of partisanship

The North Carolina Supreme Court building rises over East Morgan Street in Raleigh.
North Carolina Courts
The North Carolina Supreme Court building rises over East Morgan Street in Raleigh.

A new investigation by ProPublica reveals how the Republican-dominated North Carolina Supreme Court squashed disciplinary action against two GOP judges last fall.

Both judges admitted to violating the state’s judicial code of ethics, but got off with no public discipline, raising questions of partisanship among state Supreme Court justices.

ProPublica investigative reporter Doug Clark spoke with WFAE's Nick de la Canal about the story.

Nick de la Canal: Can you tell us what these two judges, Lori Hamilton and Caroline Burnette, are accused of doing?

Doug Clark: So, Caroline Burnette was conducting a trial when she ended up getting in a public altercation with the defendant. She ended up telling him to 'shut up,' at which point he also got verbally abusive back to her, and this confrontation escalated until the defendant ended up rushing Judge Burnette and a police officer stepped in and ended up shooting the defendant to death.

De la Canal: In the courtroom, yeah.

Clark: In the courtroom. And this was potentially a violation of the state's judicial code of ethics, which requires that judges should maintain order and decorum in their proceedings, and that a judge should be patient and dignified and courteous to all participants in the trial.

De la Canal: And what was Lori Hamilton accused of?

Clark: In November 2021, Hamilton was overseeing a trial of a man charged with sex crimes against minors. She was very frustrated with the mother of the victims for bringing them to court late. She took that mother into custody without legal justification and she jailed her as a witness for four days, just to ensure that she would have the mother on hand should she want the mother to testify. In doing so, she had potentially violated multiple canons of the judicial code, including that the judge should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, and that a judge should be faithful to the law and maintain a professional competence in it.

De la Canal: So, both of these judges are Republican women — although in the case of Burnette, she had been a Democrat before switching her registration. What was the recommended disciplinary action from the Judicial Standards Commission, and what discipline did they end up receiving?

Clark: The Judicial Standards Commission is an arm of the Supreme Court that disciplines judges and investigates their misconduct.And they recommended that these judges get a public reprimand.

De la Canal: And did they end up receiving one?

Clark: They did not. In fact, in this case, the Republican-controlled North Carolina Supreme Court decided to let both Republican judges off.

De la Canal: And so you learned this through anonymous sources since charges like this aren't public in North Carolina unless the Supreme Court orders discipline — the state Supreme Court orders discipline. Is it unusual though for the state Supreme Court to ignore disciplinary recommendations?

Clark: It is very unusual. The Judicial Standards Commission publishes annual reports., and the data in those reports is anonymized. But by going through many, many years of the reports, we were able to see that over the course of more than the last decade, the Supreme Court has accepted the recommendation for public discipline 19 out of 17 times — and the two times that it has not appear to be those of Hamilton and Burnette.

De la Canal: And you also tell the story in your reporting of Angela Foster, who was a Black Democratic judge who was publicly reprimanded earlier this year. What happened in that case?

Clark: So, Foster is a Black Democratic judge and her case was heard by the Supreme Court immediately after the Republicans, Burnette and Hamilton.And in her case, the Supreme Court accepted the commission's recommendation for public punishment.

De la Canal: What have you heard from either the two Republican judges or the state Supreme Court justices in response to your reporting?

Clark: So, we've had a series of no comments, except in the case of Hamilton — who said that her political affiliation had nothing to do with the conservative majority of the Supreme Court going against the commission's recommendation.

De la Canal: So, the political sphere has been rife with accusations of partisan judges and courts over the last few years. How do you think that this plays into that conversation?

Clark: So the Judicial Standards Commission and the treatment of judges is, of course, supposed to be nonpartisan. The North Carolina Supreme Court and the Judicial Standards Commission are supposed to treat everyone equally, but there has been a lot of partisan fighting around this commission.

In talking to a former Republican justice, Bob Orr, he said that partisan disputes over the judicial standards process have intensified in recent years. According to him, the judicial standards process needs a major overhaul, in that he doesn't think it was set up to deal with the current political atmosphere that judges have been embroiled in.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal