Setting the Standard: North Carolina Court of Appeals, Chief Judge John C. Martin

by Donna S. Stroud

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The Storied Third Branch

Published May 2013

One of the very best things about being a judge is getting to know the other judges. I have been fortunate to meet many other judges from many jurisdictions, from both trial and appellate courts, and without exaggeration, I can say that all have been kind, intelligent, and interesting people who truly care about making our system of law and justice work better for everyone. Many of the judges I have worked with, both when I was practicing as an attorney before them and then with them as colleagues, have taught me so much. But one of these judges stands out as someone who exemplifies what a judge should be: Chief Judge John Martin of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. In addition to excelling at the usual duties of deciding cases and preparing opinions, he has also excelled at the administrative duties of being Chief Judge as well as improving our courts and legal system in many ways that may not be obvious to those outside of North Carolina’s judicial system.

Chief Judge Martin earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Wake Forest University. After serving as an officer in the Military Police Corps of the United States Army, he was in the private practice of law in Durham for thirteen years. In 1977, Judge Martin was appointed as a Superior Court Judge and served there until his election to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 1984. In 1988, he returned to private practice but in 1992 was again elected to the Court of Appeals, where he still serves today; he has been Chief Judge since 2004.

As Chief Judge, Judge Martin has been instrumental in improving the Court in nearly every way. The Court’s physical workplace has been improved by his oversight of the complete renovation of the 1913 Court of Appeals Building, coordinating the work of architects, construction experts, and the State Construction Office, a process which took many years and has resulted in a building which retains its historical grandeur but provides a modern and efficient workplace. But the less tangible work, which he has done in the Court of Appeals building, is even more impressive.

Management of a law firm is often accurately compared to “herding cats,” but managing a court is more challenging than a law firm. A law firm manager may have the authority to discipline or reward attorneys by demotion, firing, cutting pay, increasing pay, or promotion, but a Chief Judge has no such authority. A Chief Judge must earn the respect of a group of very independent judges from a variety of backgrounds and can guide only by example and persuasion. Judge Martin has indeed earned the respect and admiration of all of us on the Court of Appeals and has, by his leadership, administrative skills, encouragement, and sometimes a bit of nagging, increased both the collegiality and the productivity of this Court to a very high level.

You need not take just my admittedly biased word as to Judge Martin’s accomplishments as Chief Judge. I would offer as evidence an article published in The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process entitled Seeking Best Practices among Intermediate Courts of Appeal: A Nascent Journey. W. Warren H. Binford, Preston C. Greene, Maria C. Schmidlkofer, Robert M. Wilsey, and Hillary A. Taylor, Seeking Best Practices among Intermediate Courts of Appeal: A Nascent Journey, Vol. 9, No. 1 The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process 37 (Spring 2007). This article compares the procedures, efficiency, and productivity of the intermediate appellate courts of 13 states with similar court structures and finds that North Carolina is one of the most efficient and productive intermediate appellate courts in the country. The analysis was based on information from 2005, and I believe that our statistics have only improved since then. See id. at 43. The article also compares the salaries and funding for the various courts, and of course North Carolina ranks in the bottom on these measures; in seeking an explanation for the variations between the courts, the authors ask,

If the answer is that their productivity is driven by compensation, how does one explain the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which ranks tenth (out of thirteen) for associate judge salaries, but third (out of nine) for court efficiency and fourth (out of thirteen) for court productivity? Further research should be conducted to determine what factors contribute to relatively high court productivity and efficiency despite relatively low compensation for associate judges.

Id. at 101-02 (footnotes omitted).

I have not done “[f]urther research[,]” but I would argue that the answer to the question of what drives our productivity can be found in the collegiality and professionalism which Judge Martin models and inspires. The article also considers these factors and asks,

Just how does the stability, civility, and relationships among the judges of a court impact court performance?

Former chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Harry T. Edwards has defined a collegial court as one in which judges have a common interest, as members of the judiciary, in getting the law right, and as a result, they are willing to listen, persuade, and be persuaded, all in an atmosphere of civility and respect. Collegiality is a process that helps to create the conditions for principled agreement, by allowing all points of view to be aired and considered.

Judge Edwards provides insight into forming and maintaining a collegial court that can be applied to state intermediate courts of appeal. Recognizing that empirical studies on judicial decisionmaking are inherently flawed because they fail to take into account factors such as collegiality, Judge Edwards states that, most fundamentally, work on the appellate bench is a group process. A stable court, with strong leadership and individual judges who subscribe to the institutional mission of the judiciary (getting the law right), can achieve collegiality and high quality productivity.

. . . .

. . . Thus, a court culture that values productivity and efficiency while giving its members collegiality with each other and active deliberation, might tip the balance in favor of higher court performance.

Id. at 111-14 (ellipses, brackets, and footnotes omitted).

In my opinion, the answer to the question of how the North Carolina Court of Appeals has achieved such a high level of efficiency, productivity, and collegiality, despite our relatively low salaries and court funding, is the court culture which Chief Judge Martin has in large part created. No statistical analysis is capable of quantifying his influence, but as associate judges on the Court of Appeals we see it every day.

In addition to his work on the Court of Appeals, Judge Martin has also served as Chair of the Judicial Standards Commission since 2001 and is now the longest-serving chair in the Commission’s history. In this capacity, he has drafted and secured enactment of legislation expanding the Commission and improving procedures for investigation, hearing, and resolution of judicial misconduct complaints. He has served as a leader in judicial organizations at both the state and national levels. After years of involvement in the Council of Chief Judges of State Courts of Appeal, he was elected president of the national organization in 2012. He has also been a leader in judicial education, as a major participant in the creation of the North Carolina Judicial College at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as a frequent CLE and CJE speaker for major legal education providers throughout the state and for students at all of the state’s law schools. He has been active in both the ABA and the North Carolina Bar Association throughout his career, serving in too many leadership positions for me to mention here. In recognition of these many accomplishments, the North Carolina Bar Association will present the prestigious John J. Parker Award to Judge Martin at the Association’s annual meeting this summer. The John J. Parker Award was established by the NCBA in 1959 as “the highest honor of this association bestowed in recognition of conspicuous service to the cause of jurisprudence in North Carolina,” and is not given annually, but “as merited,” and Judge Martin no doubt merits this honor. Although most of the citizens of North Carolina may not know who Judge Martin is, or even what a Court of Appeals does, all of the citizens who have dealt with our legal system have, in ways large and small, benefited from Judge Martin’s many contributions.

About Donna S. Stroud

Donna S. Stroud is a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals.