Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Associate Justice Robin Hudson was elected to the N.C. Supreme Court in 2006, and took office in 2007. A correction has also been added to reflect that Hudson spent six years, not five, on the N.C. Court of Appeals. We sincerely apologize for the errors. 

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin will soon become the next dean of Regent University’s law school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Who might take his place is anyone’s guess, though it’s a safe bet that the court will continue to skew left.

The 55-year-old Martin, a public servant for 26 years, on Jan. 26 announced his resignation from the N.C. Supreme Court, effective Feb.  28. Martin has served on the court for 20 years. Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him chief justice in 2014.

Martin told Spectrum News’ Tim Boyum in a Friday interview it’s time for a career switch. Plain and simple.

“You reach a point in your career where, if you want to try a second career, you have to get started,” Martin said. “You still have your health, and still have your energy and ability to really go out and give your very best. And, aside from judging, the thing that I’ve enjoyed more than anything else is working with law students and young people who want to join our profession as lawyers.”

McCrory picked Martin in September 2014 to replace retiring Chief Justice Sarah Parker. Martin won a full eight-year term as chief justice in an election two months later. He had served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court since 1999.

Martin had been both the youngest justice in N.C. Supreme Court history and the youngest judge elected to the N.C. Court of Appeals. He served on that court from 1994 to 1999 after two years as a Superior Court judge in Pitt County. Martin had served as legal counsel to former Republican N.C. Gov. Jim Martin before taking the bench.

Earlier this month, Martin helped the N.C. Supreme Court celebrate its 200th anniversary. He invoked Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers essay No. 78 in urging colleagues to set aside “preferences and opinions” in adhering to the rule of law.

“Each of us, as unique individuals, and thus as unique jurists, may not always administer the principles of Federalist 78 in the same exact way as other judges,” Martin explained. “The key is that we each strive to do so — that we understand that the judicial office is not a political office. Courts are a co-equal branch but with a different function than the legislative and executive branches.

J. Rich Leonard is dean of Campbell Law School in Raleigh. He’s a former U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina and became dean at Campbell’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law in July 2013.

“Chief Justice Martin is a good friend for whom I have the utmost respect,” Leonard says. “As someone who also left the bench for a deanship, I expect that he will find the skills he honed in that position will translate nicely and he will be remarkably successful.”

Martin’s exit punctuates an already significant political shift on the court. The seven-member body has swung from conservative to liberal, flipping from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 4-3 Democratic majority after the election in November 2016.

In that race, Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan beat incumbent Associate Justice Bob Edmunds. Morgan got 54 percent of the vote to Edmunds’ 46 percent. Many suggested Morgan’s place on the ballot, which came before Edmunds, played heavily in the outcome.

Regardless, the transformation to the left continued in 2018, when Republican incumbent Associate Justice Barbara Jackson lost her seat to Democratic challenger Anita Earls.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who will appoint someone to fill Martin’s seat, is about to push the scales to a 6-1 Democratic majority.

“Historically,” says Leonard, “governors have looked to associate justices to fill the Chief Justice position when it has become vacant, and there is certainly ample talent on the court in those positions,” he told Carolina Journal. “The caveat may be that many of the current associate justices have just run increasingly arduous campaigns and are secure in eight-year terms. Whoever becomes chief justice will have to run in 2020 to keep the position, which means starting to build a campaign right now for what will undoubtedly be an expensive and hotly contested race.  We will just have to see who is interested.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr echoes Leonard, saying Cooper probably will choose someone already on the court as chief justice then appoint someone from the N.C. Court of Appeals to fill the open associate justice’s seat.

Senior Associate Justice Paul Newby is the only remaining Republican on the court. Newby would be a presumptive choice for chief justice under a Republican governor. In this case, if Cooper selects a chief justice from among those already on the bench, he is more likely to choose Associate Justice Robin Hudson — the court’s senior Democrat — to fill the slot, Orr said.

Hudson was elected to the Supreme Court in 2006 after six years as a judge on the Court of Appeals. She was re-elected in 2014. Her term expires in 2022.

While Hudson is a candidate for Cooper’s appointment, there’s no guarantee she would run for the position again when her term is over. Justices are required to retire from the Supreme Court at age 72. Hudson is 66.

Cooper will most likely select a chief justice who is willing to run for re-election, Orr said.

“There will be no shortage of patriots willing to volunteer,” he said.

Merit, not politics, should be the deciding factor when it comes to filling the vacancy, Martin told Boyum.

“You should be selected based on legal and judicial ability, demeanor and temperament. And that goes with being open-minded, to listening to both sides of the dispute before you come to a conclusion,” he said.  

There’s another factor, Leonard says. The court, he says, must make a greater effort to progress and to adapt in today’s technology driven environment.

“I have always been heavily involved in court technology,” Leonard says, “and it is painfully obvious that the North Carolina courts are woefully behind the federal and other state courts in this area. But we are at a pivot point, and I think the primary job of the next chief justice is to drive the North Carolina courts into the 21st century, whoever he or she is.”

In 2015, Martin convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, a 65-member panel of attorneys, academics, and non-lawyers to address the state’s handling of civil justice, criminal investigations, legal professionalism, technology, and public trust in the courts. As a result of that effort, the chief justice led a successful effort in 2017 to raise the age for 16-and- 17-year-old offenders who still were prosecuted for minor crimes under the state’s adult criminal justice system.

CJ Managing Editor John Trump provided additional reporting for this story.