What is the deal with former Chief Justice Mark Martin?

Published August 18, 2022

By Rob Schofield

It seemed pretty weird a few years back when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin — a veteran and respected jurist with a reputation as a longstanding member of that increasingly rare breed of Americans known as “moderate Republicans” — resigned from his high office to go to work as the law school dean at Regent University (AKA Pat Robertson Tech).

Imagine current right-wing Chief Justice Paul Newby resigning to head up the famously progressive law schools at, say, Berkeley or Northeastern.

Martin was still pretty young (in his mid 50’s), and while being a law school dean can be a pretty lucrative gig — especially in comparison to the pedestrian 150K or so the chief justice takes home — it just seemed like an odd career move. During his political/judicial career, Martin had many friends on both sides of the political aisle and won endorsements from Republicans and Democrats, and the idea that he would suddenly abandon all that to cozy up to a reactionary and hateful theocrat like Robertson at a school that was basically established to be a boot camp for religious right lawyers was rather shocking.

At the time, many a North Carolina political observer wondered what the heck was going on. Had Martin undergone some kind of religious conversion?

I’m not aware that anyone ever got a good answer to that question, but the mystery only deepened in early 2021 when it came to light that Martin — of all people — had turned up as an advisor to Donald Trump in his outrageous effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer rightfully editorialized at the time in response to a New York Times report that Martin had allegedly informed then-Vice President Mike Pence that he had the power to declare Trump the winner:

Perhaps Martin’s involvement with Trump as the president raged against his clear defeat was less direct and his advice more nuanced than described by the Times. He should clear it up. Otherwise it looks like the state’s former chief justice, a member of the state’s high court for more than 20 years, is either an inept lawyer, a blind Trump loyalist, or both.

Meanwhile, Martin can be assigned a provisional spot in North Carolina’s Trumpian Hall of Shame…”

As you’ve probably heard, in the months since last January’s terrifying events, Martin has since departed Regent and returned to North Carolina. In June of this year, it was announced that he would help launch another law school with connections to a prominent and charismatic media figure (businessman, “motivational speaker,” TV host Nido Qubein) at the school Quebin has long funded and run, High Point University.

As with the job at Regent and the deeply disturbing foray into Trump-land, this latest episode remains weirdly shrouded in secrecy. As veteran Greensboro News & Record journalist Allen Johnson noted in an on-the-mark column shortly after the announcement:

“…it’s a fair question: Did Martin try to help Trump get reelected without actually winning, based on a flimsy litany of myths and legends? Or not?

And if not, it should be an easy answer: No.

Neither High Point University’s typically loquacious president, Nido Qubein, nor Martin had much to say, beyond canned statements in news releases.

When pressed about Martin’s ties to Trump, the university claimed attorney-client confidentiality, but Martin easily could confirm that he spoke with Trump without revealing what he said.”

An editorial in the Greensboro-based Triad City Beat put it even more succinctly when it asked of the new school at HPU: “What sort of law will they be teaching over there?”

The new school has yet to officially launch, so the controversy has receded from the public eye in recent weeks, but yesterday, the good folks at the progressive advocacy group Carolina Forward unveiled a campaign to force it back out into the open.

The group has placed a billboard on I-74 near the HPU campus (see the image above) and is calling on Qubein and his school to rethink the decision to hire Martin. As the group notes in an online statement:

Mark Martin was an eager and deeply engaged member of a small team of political loyalists who sought to install Trump in power at any cost – including ignoring the United States Constitution.

…Mark Martin’s actions have demonstrated that he cannot, and does not deserve to, be the founding dean of High Point University’s School of Law.

The bottom line: There’s no rule against hiring law school administrators with conservative — even deeply reactionary — political views. But in this case, the Carolina Forward folks make a valid point. Martin’s new job will be to prepare scores of new attorneys to be members of the North Carolina Bar and it seems reasonable to, at the least, demand that he (and his new boss) speak up to fully explain his actions related to January 6, 2021 if he wants to have the privilege of conducting such important work.