What happens if Anita Earls is elected to the U.S. Senate?

N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls via NC Judicial Branch

RALEIGH — Two candidates have announced their intent to run for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary, state Sen. Jeff Jackson and former state Sen. Erica Smith. Yet the state’s March 2022 primary is over a year away, giving other potential candidates plenty of time to raise money and campaign for the job.

Jackson sought to preempt attacks over his striking similarities to 2020 Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, even giving an unprompted answer that he “has not cheated on his wife” to a question Spectrum News One anchor Tim Boyum asked him about candidate diversity.


Smith, a black woman and three-term state senator, recently told the Raleigh News & Observer that the party does “better when our candidates look like and reflect the values of what our party should be as the party of big tent inclusion,” and that, “there is not a cookie cutter white male version that is successful.”

That criticism has helped fuel calls from some Democratic activists for another candidate to enter the race, state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls.

A well-known lawyer who led many of the lawsuits against Republicans in the past decade, Earls ran for an associate justice seat in 2018 and won, defeating Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson. Republicans will note that Earls’ 2018 victory also included an assist from the third candidate in the race, Chris Anglin, who registered as a Republican to enter the race, splitting votes from the incumbent.

With her election, Earls earned the seat for the next eight years. Yet, if she decided to run for the U.S. Senate, she would first have to resign from the state’s high court.

The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct states:

A judge may become a candidate either in a primary or in a general election for a judicial office provided that the judge should resign the judge’s judicial office prior to becoming a candidate either in a party primary or in a general election for a nonjudicial office.

That means Earls must resign just three years into her term if she were to declare for the U.S. Senate race.

If that happens, Gov. Roy Cooper would appoint a replacement for Earls who would then run for a full eight-year term in the next general election.

Earls hasn’t signaled she would run, but two women of color on the ballot in 2020 could also run — and rumors suggest one is readying an effort.

Former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, according to one report, has hired a campaign team and will join the Democratic primary. Beasley, who lost the chief justice race to Republican Paul Newby by 401 votes, recently joined a Raleigh law firm. But according to the report, she is putting together a campaign team for the race.

The other, retired Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, ran against Republican Rep. Richard Hudson and lost by five points in the state’s Eighth Congressional District race.

Moving from the state Supreme Court to Congress isn’t unprecedented.

Long-time First District Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield served as an associate justice before winning a special election to represent the district in 2004. He was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley in 2001 and lost the 2002 general election, which spurred state Democrats to strip party affiliations from the ballot in subsequent elections.

In the Senate, senior Texas senator John Cornyn, elected to his fourth term in 2020, served on the Texas Supreme Court in the 1990s. He later won election as Texas Attorney General before winning the Senate seat.