The governor’s appointment of Mark Martin to take over as N.C. Supreme Court chief justice in September answers one question but raises another.
North Carolinians now know who will fill the seat that Chief Justice Sarah Parker, a registered Democrat, must retire from at the end of the month. Her birthday is Saturday, and she will be 72, the mandatory retirement age.
Martin, a Republican and senior associate justice since 2006, will move into the leadership position for the next two months. But what will happen to the seat on the seven-member court that he is vacating before the Nov. 4 elections is unknown.
Martin, 51, is seeking election to the chief justice seat held for the past eight years by Parker. Ola Mae Lewis, an N.C. Superior Court judge in Brunswick County, also is campaigning for the post.
Under state law, the governor has the power to appoint someone to fill Martin’s associate justice seat when he moves into the chief justice role. Voters decide in November who will serve for the next eight years.
Gov. Pat McCrory is weighing an appointment to that seat, and his staff expects news on that front later this week. Two N.C. Court of Appeals judges – Sam J. Ervin IV, a Democrat who lost a 2012 bid for a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court; and Robert N. Hunter Jr., a Republican – are vying for Martin’s spot.
Whether the governor will appoint one of the candidates or someone without a political stake in the seat was uncertain on Monday. In all, four N.C. Supreme Court seats are up for grabs in November.
Though the elections are nonpartisan, there has been interest in the political balance of the court. Since 2012, state Supreme Court races have attracted much outside money.
The seven justices on the state Supreme Court play a powerful role in deciding what happens in issues of great public consequence.
They will be asked to rule on new election laws, educational policies and criminal justice matters of great weight.
Before the campaign filing period earlier this year, many expected Martin to have an unopposed campaign for the chief justice seat.
Politics and the court
Lewis, an N.C. Central University law school alumna who clerked for Democrat Dan Blue when he was speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, has campaigned as a Republican in the nonpartisan race, going from one end of the state to the other.
Though Lewis initially talked about running for the same N.C. Supreme Court seat as Cheri Beasley, a Democrat appointed to the court by former Gov. Bev Perdue, she pulled out of that race shortly before the close of the filing period.
Mike Robinson, a civil litigator in Winston-Salem and a Republican, had entered the race for the Beasley seat, and Lewis made a surprise entry into the chief justice race, drawing rebukes from some Republicans.
With four of the seven seats on the ballot this year in a state where politics have become hyperpartisan, there have been accusations of gamesmanship in races that until recently had not seen a huge infusion of outside money.
Lewis, the senior resident Superior Court judge in Brunswick County, told Wilmington TV reporter Justin Smith in the spring that her last-minute decision to enter the race for the top seat on the state Supreme Court was influenced by “political gamesmanship.”
In a campaign release earlier this month, Lewis criticized Republican leaders for seeking to have Martin appointed to the seat before the election.
But in a ceremony at the N.C. Capitol on Monday, McCrory and others described the appointment of Martin as in keeping with tradition.
Former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell said the practice of appointing the most senior justice prevented “jockeying” among seven justices who have to work closely with each other.
“There is so much about the court that is unwritten – the traditions, the practices and so on,” Mitchell said. “This is in my mind a perfect moment, a perfect time in history.”
There was much praise for Parker’s leadership role on a court of key arbiters in issues big and small, with justices, clerks and the governor describing her as a chief justice who “served the state, holding herself to the highest of standards.”
Martin, who has 22 years of judicial experience on the N.C. Supreme Court, N.C. Court of Appeals and in the N.C. Superior Courts, described his predecessor as a chief justice with “total commitment, integrity and a wonderful institutional memory.”
Martin received a juris doctorate law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, a master of laws degree from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s degree from Western Carolina University, where his father was a business professor.
Before his judicial service, Martin served as legal counsel to Gov. James G. Martin, no relation, and practiced law at the McNair Law Firm in Raleigh. He also clerked for U.S. District Judge Clyde H. Hamilton.
With his wife, Kym, daughter Susanna and son Nathaniel by his side, Martin beamed as the governor lavished praise.
“Mark has earned this appointment, and his credentials speak for themselves,” McCrory told the roomful of well-wishers at the Capitol. “But most importantly – something that is very important to me as governor and also when I was mayor of Charlotte – he’s an ethical and honest man with the highest of integrity.”
Martin said after the ceremony that he knows there has been much political interest in the courts.
In 2012, outside groups funneled nearly $2.3 million into North Carolina to help Paul Newby, a Supreme Court incumbent seeking re-election, defeat a challenge by Ervin.
The victory helped conservatives maintain a 4-3 majority on the court at a time when the state saw an onslaught of new election law challenges and other legal cases born from Republicans having control of both state houses and the governor’s office for the first time in a century.
That balance of power is at issue this year, too.
“One thing that I really find important,” Martin said, “is that we continue to maintain fidelity to the rule of law.”
That judges are elected adds an element of politics that often can be difficult to ignore.
“Judges basically have to resolve that they’re going to rise above politics,” Martin said. “Every judge has to get up each day and make that his or her purpose. Undeniably, when you have elections, it can be even more challenging.”