Chief justice resignation creates opportunity for GOP

Timing of resignation could create three elections in 2020

Madeline Gray | North State Journal
North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin discusses his support for raising the age for juvenile offenders to be tried as adults during a press conference on Monday

RALEIGH — North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin announced on Friday he is resigning from the Supreme Court to become dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia.

Martin’s resignation creates a vacancy on the state’s highest court which will be filled by Gov. Roy Cooper. Democrats currently enjoy a 5-2 majority on the court with Martin and Justice Paul Newby as the two Republicans.

Martin issued a press release on Friday afternoon announcing the move and that his final day on the court would be Feb. 28.

With a likely 6-1 majority on the Supreme Court, Cooper and his allies will have an ideological advantage in several lawsuits headed to the court over redistricting, voter identification and separation of powers.

In an interview on Monday, Martin told North State Journal that the timing of his departure was based on the unique opportunity offered by Regent University.

“When you’re in your fifties, you have to make a decision on whether you want a second career after public service,” said Martin. “I was approached about this position, and you can’t say ‘wait until the end of my eight-year term.’”

Martin also noted his longevity on the court and in public service.

“I’ve been on this court for 10 percent of its entire history,” said Martin. The chief justice presided recently over the court’s 200th anniversary session.

With his resignation, Martin will have completed 26 years on the bench. He also spent two years as a law clerk and two in the executive branch before becoming a judge. When asked about his legacy on the court, Martin said he had lived up to his commitments.

“I served the majority of my term and fulfilled my pledges,” he said.

The vacancy in the chief justice’s chair will likely have a cascading effect on the court. Martin, had he stayed on the court, would have been up for election in 2022 along with Democrats Cheri Beasley, Robin Hudson and Sam Ervin IV. Newby was the only justice facing re-election in 2020.

Because of state law, whoever Cooper appoints as Chief Justice will face the voters in 2020. Should Cooper appoint a current Democrat justice, that vacancy would also be up for election in 2020.

Newby has already announced his intention to seek the chief justice spot whether it be now by appointment or in 2020 through election. If Cooper elevates a current Democratic justice to chief justice, there would be three vacancies in 2020. Republicans would then have the opportunity to narrow the Democratic advantage to a single vote if they were to win all three.

Martin will assume his new duties as a dean after a historical career on the bench. At the age of 29, he was first appointed to a local judgeship. He then became the youngest judge on the state’s Court of Appeals in 1994, and then in 1998, became the youngest supreme court justice at 35. Gov. Pat McCrory elevated Martin to chief justice in 2014.