Mark Martin has served as North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice for two years; time enough to get comfortable with the job and to begin to chart a new approach to judicial administration. The road map for reform and modernization will include the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice’s final report, which was released in March.
Martin was born in Brussels, Belgium (his father served in the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the U.S. Embassy). He graduated from Western Carolina University with a Bachelor of Science in business administration. He received his Juris Doctor from UNC School of Law. He earned a Master of Laws in judicial process from the University of Virginia School of Law.
When Martin was elected to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court in 1998 he was 35, the youngest justice in North Carolina history. Martin will have served as a judge at the state court level for 30 years when his current term ends in six years.
In January, Chief Justice Martin sat down for an interview with Attorney at Law Magazine Executive Publisher Bob Friedman.
AALM: Everyone describes you as “a nice guy.” When I’ve seen you at events, you are warm, open and approachable with a delightful laugh.
Martin: I’m glad you consider me a nice guy. It’s also a nice model where the other justices would know I was their friend, I was their advocate. If they want to contribute to the common good, I want to help them in any way I can.
One of the reasons I want to be nice is because I want everyone else on the court to be nice. One of the greatest things in my life is being part of a family. We really view everyone here at the Supreme Court and in the court system as part of a family. We try to accord each other with mutual respect because that’s how we would like to interact with the public at large.
It was amazing to me that by the time I had been a judge for five or 10 years I was really coming to grips with the fact that not everyone held judges in high regard. Some judges, not many, had really bad reputations because they relied too much on the sternness and the jury authority they had by virtue of the office.
AALM: With that in mind, what is your leadership philosophy?
Martin: Leadership is earned through a positive example. You can have somebody in a position with supposed formal power but if everybody behind their back is saying, we don’t like that leadership, it’s not creative, it’s coercive based, I don’t think that’s real leadership.
I want to be respected because people believe I’m doing the very best I can, so that’s competence, that people believe I’m carrying out the office with the highest degree of integrity.
Funding Judicial Elections
AALM: The last two elections for seats on the Supreme Court have attracted outside money. Do you worry about having a target on your back if you run for re-election?
Martin: When I was appointed as judge it was a high honor for me. My only goal is to uphold the Constitution and the law. If people decide to vote for me for re-election, I want it to be because they know I gave my best, that I gave 110%, that I was fair to everyone who came before the court, and to know that Mark Martin has walked with integrity and we can trust him.
AALM: What’s it like for your wife, Kym, and your children to have the chief justice as a member of the family?
Martin: I know that at times, my kids said they always felt there was quite a bright light on them and that it wasn’t always fun. I’d like to think that if nothing else, they knew that their dad gave his best at his job and hopefully that would be a trait they would want to emulate just as I wanted to emulate my father.
A Perpetual Challenge
AALM: Your father, M. Dean Martin, was a United States Air Force colonel. Did you consider going into the family business?
Martin: At age 16, I announced that I too wanted to go into the military, to which my father responded, ‘Mark, that’s not the best option for you, you are far too independent. You ought to be a lawyer.’ He probably thought I talked too much and was far too opinionated.
He traveled a lot for his employment so that left me with my mother and my two sisters. Most of the time things were my fault. But every now and then I had a good argument but I was outnumbered and outvoted. I think the ability to interact positively with my siblings and have my best repertoire of arguments to demonstrate how my sisters’ reasoning was somehow flawed has served me well as a lawyer and a judge.
AALM: What are your core values?
Martin: When I think about my father’s life, there were always employment offers when he could have made more money during and aft er he left the military. Looking back now and having talked with people who worked with him, I realize he put a lot of value on serving others. He put a lot of value on trying to benefit the community, trying to serve the country and the common good. That’s always stuck with me. For a democratic society to function well there must be a lot of people who are very concerned not only about their own children and families but the welfare of others in the community.
My father was always involved in the community working to improve race relations. He was an incredible exemplar and incredible example for me.
AALM: Where do you fit in that equation?
Martin: I focus specifically on the courts. The Constitution is not self-executing. My passion is to make sure citizens of all ages understand the important role of courts in a democratic society.
Regardless of income or race or any other factor people should have equal access to the court system. Everyone needs to have confidence that if the day comes where they have a need to go to the court system that they are going to find judges who are fair and impartial, they are going to be treated with respect and they’re not going to have economic obstacles to equal justice.
I have yet to see a perfect decision but we are talking about human beings running this process and we can fall short at times. I’d rather judge any person not by their worst day but by all the years they tried their hardest. I think that’s where mercy and compassion can be a part of the system too.