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A Wistful Farewell

Chief Justice Martin has just announced his retirement from the bench. While his accomplishments are well-known, Mark (and since that’s how I’ve always known him, I won’t stop now) has always been a little formal in public and prefers to divert attention to others. So what’s he really like? Having spent sixteen years working with him, I hope I can shed a little light on that question.

Mark’s early adulthood wasn’t easy. His father was a retired Air Force officer teaching at Western Carolina when he unexpectedly died while relatively young. Mark, the oldest of four children, found himself working with his mother as a surrogate dad. They seem to have done okay. Mark’s younger brother now serves as the presidentially-appointed United States Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. One sister is a surgeon and the other is a veterinarian. Mark’s proud mom is doing fine, having wisely chosen to live in Atlanta near her medically-trained daughters.

I first met Mark when he was working for Governor Jim Martin (no relation), but the fun really began with his own campaigns. One painful memory involves a fundraiser in Greensboro when Mark was first running for the Court of Appeals. About ten people of the hundreds promised by the organizer showed up. Mark was very grateful for those ten. Today we’d call it a bonding experience. Things got better after that-a lot better.

Our paths crossed for good in 2000 when I joined the Supremes, two years after Mark’s 1998 election to that Court. All seven chambers were on the same floor then. He had seniority over me and thus got the corner office. As a former trial judge, he had useful insight into “what’s really going on” in many of the cases. I learned from watching Mark that it’s often better to work with the majority to reach a result that you can live with than it is to write a passionate but ineffective dissent.

He’s not a complainer. Few know that he was rear-ended during his 2006 re-election campaign and suffered back pain for years afterwards. When one of his children was mauled by a neighbor’s dog, he quietly took the time to be a supportive father and ensure that the child received the best medical treatment. Since he doesn’t talk about this challenging time, I’m happy to tell you that the child has fully recovered.

Mark delights in bringing people along. For instance, it wasn’t enough for him that he was selected to be chair of the ABA’s Appellate Judges Conference and later its entire Judicial Division. He did his level best to encourage others. I remember when he made his pitch to me, explaining the ABA’s byzantine structure and the many places a judge could make a contribution. When I decided to jump in, he made sure that I was introduced to the organization’s leadership and put to work. I’m hardly the only one.

But most of all it’s his work as Chief that impresses. Chief Justice is a big job, the equivalent to an additional full-time position heaped atop the usual judicial responsibilities. There’s a lot more to it than just being the first to walk into the courtroom and having your portrait hung there instead of in the hall outside. No one who wants a nine-to-five job should aspire to be Chief Justice.

When Mark became Chief, he hit the ground running. Thanks to his many long-standing friendships both in and outside the legal community, he was able to persuade a remarkable group of talented men and women to volunteer their time to work on his Chief Justice’s Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.

He has used those same skills inside the Court. A Chief Justice is first among equals. Each Associate Justice has been elected in his or her own right and is expected to act independently. Leading such a group is accomplished by example and persuasion, not coercion. In the confidential court conferences, Mark has followed in the tradition of his predecessors, allowing everyone a chance to be heard while keeping the arguments and discussions between the Justices civil, on point, and moving. When things become repetitive, he calls for a vote, then goes on to the next case.

This skill is particularly valuable for the other Justices. The Court is a small world and works best when the Justices get along with each other, no matter how great their differences on individual cases. The Chief sets the tone. Mark has always assured that these confidential conferences, where the sausage is made, are thorough, stimulating, exciting, and often punctuated by laughter around the table. To paraphrase Fleetwood Mac, he makes judging fun. This state is going to miss him. His colleagues across the profession are going to miss him. I am going to miss him. Ave et vale, Chief.

–Bob Edmunds

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