Caroline Burnette and Lori Hamilton are both Republicans sitting as judges on North Carolina trial courts. In 2021, they both committed clear violations of the state’s judicial code of conduct: A defendant was shot and killed by law enforcement in the middle of Burnette’s courtroom after she goaded him during an argument. Hamilton ordered a mother separated from her children and jailed for days without cause. But new investigative reporting by ProPublica reveals that the state’s majority-Republican Supreme Court, which is ultimately responsible for judicial discipline, let both judges off the hook.

The Republican justices’ failure to discipline their ideological allies for grievous misconduct is the latest incident in North Carolina suggesting that, in the hands of Republican judges, the state’s judicial ethics standards are only for political enemies. This new reporting could—and should—make the public more skeptical of the judiciary’s ability to faithfully and impartially apply the law.

In September 2021, Thomas Vaughn, a defendant in Burnette’s courtroom, had questions about his right to a court-appointed lawyer. Burnette, exasperated, told him to “shut up,” and ordered the bailiff to “take him.” An angered Vaughn ran toward Burnette and was intercepted by the bailiff, who during the ensuing struggle shouted that Vaughn had gotten ahold of his gun. A police officer in the room shot Vaughn in the head and killed him. Burnette later told local reporters that she had “no doubt” that Vaughn would have killed all fifteen people in the room otherwise.

In November 2021, Hamilton oversaw the trial of a man charged with sexually assaulting children and accused the victims’ mother of bringing the children to court late and being insufficiently cooperative with prosecutors. In order to “ensure [her] appearance at trial,” ProPublica writes, Hamilton summarily threw the mother in jail. On Hamilton’s orders, police put the mother in handcuffs, and Child Protective Services took custody of the children. The mother was not allowed to talk to an attorney, and bailiffs remarked that they didn’t even know how to book her, since she hadn’t been charged or convicted of any crime. “How can you hold me if I’m not charged with nothing?” she asked. She spent days behind bars crying and worrying about her daughters.

As ProPublica’s Doug Bock Clark reports, these incidents triggered investigations by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission. And in the course of those investigations, both Burnette and Hamilton admitted that they violated the state’s judicial code of conduct, which requires judges to be “patient, dignified and courteous” and to “maintain order and decorum in proceedings.” Burnette’s brawl-inspiring disrespect would appear to fall outside of those bounds. The code also tells judges to “be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence,” and “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.” Again, Hamilton’s choice to jail the mother of child victims of sexual assault without any plausible legal justification would seem to run afoul of these guidelines. 

The Judicial Standards Commission—which is composed of six judges appointed by the state supreme court chief justice, four judges appointed by the legislature, two citizens appointed by the legislature, and two citizens appointed by the governor—recommended that the state supreme court give both judges public reprimands. Under North Carolina law, a majority of the state supreme court must agree to any proposed punishment. On every other occasion since 2011 that the Commission referred cases to the court for judicial discipline—17 times—the court issued public disciplinary orders.

But not this time: Per Clark’s reporting, in both Burnette’s and Hamilton’s cases, a majority of the court ignored the Commission’s recommendations, thus avoiding issuing a public reprimand to two Republicans before their 2024 reelection bids. Nothing is more important than upholding judicial ethics standards—unless, of course, your fellow partisans are on the ballot.

This treatment is particularly jarring in contrast to the court’s treatment of judges who are Black women and Democrats. For example, as Clark notes, the court had no problem following the Commission’s recommendations in March of this year when it suspended district court judge Angela Foster for 120 days for pressuring a court official to reduce her son’s bond. Sometimes, Black Democrats even face unwarranted threats of discipline: Last year, Justice Anita Earls was the target of an ethics investigation for, in interviews, acknowledging that systemic injustice exists and the state’s conservative justices, like all people, have implicit biases. The court’s appetite for meting out discipline disappears when the person to be disciplined is a white Republican.

Actual enforcement of judicial standards is critical to bolstering the judiciary’s integrity and fostering public confidence in the legal system. But for Republican-captured courts, partisan loyalty is a bigger priority than the law.

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