Politics & Government

NC Supreme Court may shift further left as chief justice Mark Martin says he’ll retire

The chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court announced his plans Friday to retire next month, paving the way for a 6-1 Democratic majority on the state’s highest court.

Mark Martin is the longest-serving justice now on the court, having first been elected in 1999. According to a press release from the North Carolina Judicial Branch, he is leaving to become the dean of the law school at Regent University, a Christian school in Virginia.

“It has been the highest of honors to serve the people of North Carolina as their Chief Justice,” Martin said in a written statement. “I will forever cherish the memories of serving with so many amazing and capable people. It is now time to direct my focus to helping prepare the next generation of leaders.”

Martin has been the chief justice since 2014. He is one of two Republican judges remaining on the court. But with his departure, his vacant seat will be filled by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper does not have to pick a Republican to fill out the rest of Martin’s term, which ends in 2022.

Former N.C. Supreme Court justice Bob Edmunds worked alongside Martin for 16 years and considers him one of his best friends, he said in an interview Friday. Martin was the youngest Supreme Court justice in North Carolina history when first elected, and Edmunds said he handled the role well despite his age.

“Over the years I watched him I was increasingly impressed with him, and he did an impressive job as chief justice,” Edmunds said.

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When they’re not hearing cases or writing opinions, Supreme Court justices lead committees and do other administrative work within the justice system. Martin’s efforts in that realm included a “citizens’ commission to improve the administration of justice in North Carolina” that he created in 2015, according to his retirement announcement.

Martin was also a key proponent of the “Raise The Age” legislation that passed in 2017, which will end North Carolina’s practice of automatically charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal system.

After the news broke Friday, Cooper posted on Facebook a photo of Martin swearing him in as governor and said he would get to work picking a new judge to finish the remaining three years of Martin’s term.

“I appreciate Chief Justice Mark Martin’s service to the state and the judiciary and his efforts to strengthen our court system,” Cooper wrote. “I wish him well in his new role as a law school dean. Leading the state’s highest court and its court system is a critically important job, and I will carefully consider his replacement in the coming days.”

If Cooper picks a Democrat to replace Martin, it will represent a further shift leftward for the court, which had a Republican majority as recently as 2016. After the 2016 elections the court shifted from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 4-3 Democratic majority, when Edmunds lost to Democrat Mike Morgan. And after the 2018 elections, when Democratic challenger Anita Earls defeated Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson, the court’s Democratic majority grew to 5-2.

Jackson tweeted her well wishes to Martin on Friday.

“Congratulations to my friend and former colleague, Chief Justice Mark Martin, as he takes on this new and exciting challenge,” she wrote on Twitter. “We are really going to miss his leadership here in North Carolina!”

Martin wasn’t just popular in North Carolina, Edmunds said, adding that he was at a national conference of the American Bar Association Friday and “the news shot through the conference like lightning. Mark had a lot of friends.”

Martin was the former head of the ABA’s judicial division, and in 2011 Martin was also inducted into an exclusive group called the Warren E. Burger Society, named for the former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.

“It got very little publicity at the time, but it’s basically like the Nobel Prize for appellate judges,” Edmunds said.

Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.