In an unusual move that alarmed members of the state’s criminal defense bar, a Dare County judge charged and summarily convicted an assistant capital defender of contempt during a death penalty trial last week. After rejecting the attorney’s requests for legal representation and a hearing, the judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail—the maximum allowed by state law

Attorney Matthew Geoffrion had angered Judge Jerry Tillett weeks earlier by alleging bias during jury selection, according to sources familiar with the case.

This isn’t the first time Tillett has flexed his office’s muscle. In 2013, the Judicial Standards Commission reprimanded Tillett for trying to oust the Kill Devil Hills police chief after the cops detained his son.

Judge and Jury

A Dare County judge charged and summarily convicted an assistant capital defender of contempt during a death-penalty trial.

As Jeffrey Billman reports, Tillett’s beef with Geoffrion could ultimately benefit Geoffrion’s client, Wisezah Buckman, who was sentenced to death last week.

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Anita Earls speaks at a June 2020 press conference. (Photo by Julia Wall, The News & Observer via AP)

Earls Goes to Court

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls spent three hours in a Greensboro courtroom last Thursday asking a federal judge to stop an investigation by the state’s Judicial Standards Commission that she said violates her First Amendment rights. 

It’s not clear when Judge William Osteen will rule. But he did question whether a preliminary injunction was needed before the commission makes a determination or her conservative colleagues decide on disciplinary action—which could include removing Earls from the bench. 

Earls sued the commission on August 29 after it opened an investigation into comments Earls made to the publications North Carolina Lawyer and Law360 disclosing changes the court was considering and discussing the lack of diversity in the court system. Her lawsuit has garnered national attention; 16 civil rights organizations and 20 legal ethics professors have filed briefs supporting her. 

Earls—one of two Democrats and the only Black woman on the state Supreme Court—said she has never commented on pending cases, and the commission is using the investigation to keep her from speaking about public matters. 

In court filings, Earls said her fear of reprisals from the commission led her to delete a section in an essay for the Yale Law Review Forum, decline an invitation to write for the national online magazine Slate, and refuse to answer a question at a recent Greensboro Bar Association meeting. 

The commission said in court papers that it is not violating Earls’ right to free speech because it has neither concluded its investigation nor recommended discipline. The commission also said the federal court has no business intervening. 

On Our Radar

>> All Seasons Press v. Meadows

All Seasons Press, a publisher of right-wing books that inveigh against the “woke mob” and COVID restrictions, says that doing business with former North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows has sullied its reputation. In 2022, the publisher released The Chief’s Chief, Meadows’ account of his time as former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff and the administration’s chaotic final days. 

But the book sold poorly, and the press says it lost more than $1 million. Last week, it sued Meadows in a Florida court, alleging that he “intentionally” included “statements he knew were untrue” about the “rigged” 2020 election.  

The complaint says sales tanked following media reports that Meadows—who received a $350,000 advance—cooperated with the investigation into Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. Meadows reportedly testified that he warned Trump not to claim fraud and that neither he nor the former president believed Trump’s statements about the “stolen” election—which meant that Meadows’ book “contains known falsehoods in clear and direct breach” of his agreement with his publisher, the complaint says. 

All Seasons Press pulled the book from the market last week because it felt “vulnerable to accusations of attempting to interfere” with the investigation into Trump. 

>> Doe v. Doe

In September, we wrote about a former Tulane University student who asked the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to let him anonymously sue a North Carolina woman who had accused him of sexual assault. 

The man alleged that Lily Chin, a woman he’d briefly dated, conspired with another of his exes to accuse him of sexual misconduct, which led to his expulsion from Tulane just before graduation. He asked a federal judge in Greensboro to let him sue under a pseudonym, arguing that making his name public—even while ostensibly suing to clear his name—would damage his reputation and make him a target for retaliation. 

The judge refused, and the man asked the appeals court to intervene. In a unanimous decision on October 26, the appeals court also declined

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Stephanie Thacker found no grounds to overrule the district court, pointing out that the man’s “bare assertion that he could be targeted for retaliation” is not enough to overcome “the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings.”

>> 26th North Carolina Troops Inc. v. City of Asheville and Buncombe County

A 75-foot monument of former Gov. Zebulon Vance stood in downtown Asheville for 123 years. But Vance’s legacy as a virulent racist and enslaver led local leaders to remove the monument in 2021. The Society for the Historical Preservation of 26th North Carolina Troops sued, the legal battle made its way to the state Supreme Court last week. 

H. Edward Phillips, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court that the city of Asheville breached a 2015 contract to restore the monument and violated the Monument Protection Act, which was approved months after the contract was signed. 

Justice Trey Allen IV, a Republican, asked if the regiment would have donated $115,000 to restore the monument if it knew the city would just take it down a few years later: “Isn’t the very nature of the monument that it is going to last?”

Asheville’s attorney, Eric Edgerton, said the city hadn’t agreed to maintain the monument for an extended period. He also argued that officials had the right to remove the monument if there’s a public safety threat—two men were arrested in 2022 for throwing homemade explosives at the monument—and said this case is similar to one last year in Winston-Salem, where the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the United Daughters of the Confederacy had no standing to sue over a statue’s removal. 

Noel Nickle, a Vance descendant who supports the monument’s removal, said at a news conference after the hearing that the case is not just about a contract dispute; it’s about removing a piece she said represents white supremacy. 

“I am ashamed of his actions. And I am determined to use my voice to help repair the harm caused by his words and deeds, all of which is memorialized by the monument bearing his name,” Nickle said. 

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