Chief Justice Martin to Resign

Many readers will by now have heard the news: Chief Justice Martin is stepping down to become the Dean of the Regent School of Law, a Christian law school in Virginia. This post looks back at his criminal justice legacy, and forward at the future of the court.

Chief Justice Martin’s legacy.

The Chief Justice was just 35 years old when he joined the court in 1998. He was the youngest justice in history. He became Chief Justice in 2014.

Chief Justice Martin wrote a number of important opinions over the years. The most historic may prove to be Cooper v. Berger, __ N.C. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2018 WL 6721278 (Dec. 21, 2018), holding that it does not violate separation of powers principles to require legislative confirmation of members of the Governor’s Cabinet. But he authored several significant criminal law opinions as well, among them the following:

  • State v. Ortiz-Zape, 367 N.C. 1 (2013) (holding that it did not violate the Confrontation Clause for a forensic chemist to testify about the identity of a controlled substance when that chemist had not analyzed the substance herself, but had formed an “independent expert opinion” about its identity based on a “peer review” of testing done by another analyst)
  • State v. Grice, 367 N.C. 763 (2015) (finding no Fourth Amendment violation where officers saw marijuana in plain view in the defendant’s front yard, then entered the yard without a warrant or consent to seize the marijuana, because “the unfenced portion of the property fifteen yards from the home and bordering a wood line is closer in kind to an open field than it is to the paradigmatic curtilage”)
  • State v. Rogers, __ N.C. __, 817 S.E.2d 150 (2018) (reversing precedent and holding that a conviction of keeping a vehicle for purposes of keeping a controlled substance does not require that the drug be stored “over a period of time,” but rather may be based on even a single, brief incident)

If other criminal law opinions stand out to readers, please post a comment.

Of course, the duties of a chief justice go beyond hearing cases and writing opinions. The Chief Justice did two things in his administrative capacity that also form part of his legacy. First, he convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, a blue-ribbon commission that produced a number of recommendations for strengthening the court system. Second, he was part of a successful effort to champion one of the Commission’s most significant recommendations: that the age of juvenile jurisdiction be raised from 16 to 18, effective later this year.

The future of the state supreme court.

Article IV, section 19 of the state constitution provides that judicial vacancies are filled “by appointment of the Governor.” Therefore, Governor Cooper will appoint a new chief justice.

WRAL reports here that there is a tradition of appointing the senior associate justice as chief justice. The senior associate justice today is Justice Newby, the court’s only Republican member. So he may be in line to be the chief justice, though the tradition noted by WRAL is not iron clad. For example, Governor Martin elevated Rhoda Billings to chief justice in 1986. She was the most junior associate justice at the time, but was the only Republican on the court, and Governor Martin was a Republican. Governor Cooper could follow that precedent and elevate one of the Democrats on the court, or even appoint someone not currently on the court to serve as chief justice.

If the Governor chooses a sitting associate justice to be the chief justice, he will also appoint a new associate justice. Assuming that any new justice would be a Democrat, the court would have an even larger Democratic majority: 6-1 rather than the current 5-2. Party affiliation is not a great predictor of how a justice will vote, but in criminal law the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are more likely to side with defendants than Republicans are.

Under the state constitution, any appointment, whether as chief justice or as associate justice, would last “until the next election for members of the General Assembly that is held more than 60 days after the vacancy occur[s].” That’s the election at the end of 2020, meaning that the appointee(s) will serve nearly two years.

4 thoughts on “Chief Justice Martin to Resign”

  1. In part I blame Chief Justice Martin and Justice Newby (“Tough But Fair!”) for how SCONC is currently so hostile to criminal defendants. Every time a new batch of decisions comes out from them, I cringe. They regularly stay, grant cert, and reverse in favor of the State all the time in those rare unanimous decisions where the COA granted defendants relief. Like in State v. Rogers, they reverse years of precedent to make sure criminal defendants get convicted. This includes by letting the State off on pleading issues, Constitutional issues relating to searches, stops, or investigations, or evidentiary matters.

    And yes, I’m still bitter about the recent poorly-reasoned (by Justice Jackson) decision in State v. Curtis, reversing State v. Turner, wherein I represented Ms. Curtis.

    • Many — probably most — of those victories for the State (including Rogers and Curtis) have been unanimous or nearly unanimous.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.