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N.C. Supreme Court Society Honors John Martin

N.C. Supreme Court Society Honors John Martin

John Martin, right, toasts The Old North State.

Former Chief Judge John C. Martin of the N.C. Court of Appeals was honored last week at the North Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society’s 24th Annual Meeting & Dinner.

The tribute featured a sterling reflection by fellow North Carolina Bar Association member and outgoing Clerk of Court John Connell who served the Court of Appeals throughout most of Martin’s tenure.

“I first met Judge Martin in 1986,” Connell stated. “He was a fairly new judge on the Court of Appeals, having been elected in 1984 after serving seven years as a highly respected Superior Court judge. I was the Court’s new Assistant Clerk.

“That was a powerhouse court in terms of judicial talent with the likes of John Webb, Willis Whichard, Charles Becton and Cliff Johnson, along with future chief judges Gerald Arnold and Sid Eagles and future Chief Justice Sarah Parker, last year’s recipient of this award. But let’s be clear, it was Fred Hedrick’s court.

“I learned pretty quickly that there were two types of people at the Court, those in his penthouse and those in his outhouse.”

Judge Martin, he added, left the court in 1988 to resume private practice, but returned in 1992.

“His reputation as one of the best jurists in the state steadily grew,” Connell continued, “and was underscored by the demanding but largely thankless work he undertook as Chair of the North Carolina Judicial Standards from 2001 till 2014, making him the longest serving chair in its history.

“In 2004 our hero was named as the 8th Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. At this point in its history the court had swollen to 15 judges from its initial six and unlike the original version was evenly divided between the parties and the sexes. Leading by example and moral persuasion the Chief preserved his court’s traditional collegiality by uniting us all in a common and abject fear of his displeasure.

“The first thing Judge Martin did as Chief was to direct a re-evaluation of each position in the Clerk’s Office with which he was able to obtain from AOC the first significant pay raise in years for each of the deputy clerks and our messenger. I think it telling that his first priority as its leader was to look out for the most overlooked members of the court.”

The most obvious achievement of Martin’s tenure as chief judge was the renovation of the Court of Appeals building.

“From 2005 to 2009,” Connell said, “John Martin oversaw the complete renovation of the 1913 Ruffin Building which had been chopped up, lowered, narrowed, darkened and reduced to a government office building over time. He single-handedly procured funding for the project by convincing Governor Easley and legislative leaders of its necessity. He tirelessly coordinated the work of architects, the State Construction Office, contractors, and sub-contractors with whom he was personally involved every step of the way. In the end he managed to restore the building to its former grandeur while providing a comfortable, modern and technologically sound workplace for its next century.”

Martin’s greatest achievement, however, did not involve a ribbon-cutting.

“In 2004,” Connell said, “the year John Martin became Chief, it took an average case on appeal nearly 17 months from the filing of the record on appeal in the clerk’s office until the issuance of an opinion. By national standards, incidentally, that’s pretty good, better than average. By the time he retired from the Court in 2014, the average time that a case stayed in the Court of Appeals was less than eight months, the fastest resolution rate of any period in the court’s history and one of the fastest for state appellate courts in the nation. How did he manage this staggering achievement?

“He did it by making every member of the court a stakeholder in a collective effort dedicated to a proposition which he clearly and forcefully articulated:  ‘These cases don’t belong to the lawyers or to the judges but to the parties whose lives are dramatically affected by our decisions. We owe it to them to return their cases and their lives to them as quickly as possible and to the best of our ability.’

“In the clerk’s office that meant reducing the time for docketing and mailing the Record on Appeal from over a month to a week. In spite of my protests that the goal was completely unrealistic, the average time now for this step in the process is less than three days. That part was actually pretty easy after he told me that I could find a way to make it happen or he would find somebody who would.”

The changes also impacted members of the bar.

“Not only was the briefing schedule started weeks earlier, but extensions of time became much more difficult to obtain. The Chief had a direct hand in this by requiring attorneys to demonstrate in their motions the ‘good cause’ required by Rule 27. This marked a return to the Hedrick years when you only got additional time to file a document if there was a death and it had better be yours. The time for briefing was cut in half.

“Finally for the judges it meant getting their opinions circulated and filed in cases within 90 days of their calendar date. This had been the Court’s unofficial policy for years but one that largely observed in the breach. The Chief called ‘quit’ to this state of affairs by instituting THE LIST, his variation on The Scarlet Letter.

“At the start of every month Judge Martin sent to each of the Judges a report listing every case that was outside the 90-day deadline and the judge to whom the case was assigned, himself included on rare occasions. Within a few years the average time to turn around an opinion dropped by more than a month.”

Connell closed his remarks with a personal favorite.

“This took place a few years ago when budget cuts to the judiciary were beginning to take their toll,” Connell said. “I had lost three positions in the clerk’s office and we were scrambling to plug holes. So, I was feeling sorry for myself and decided to share with the world how unfairly I was being treated.

“My voicemail recording went from ‘Please leave a message and I’ll try to return it by the end of the work day’ to ‘Because of staff reductions I am unable to return you call as expeditiously as you may be accustomed. Leave a message and I will return it in the fullness of time.’

“Late on a perfect Friday afternoon in the spring I returned to my desk to turn off my computer and start my weekend. Among the messages waiting for me was this: ‘Mr. Clerk, this is John Martin. I need to talk to you as soon as possible. If the ‘fullness of time’ includes the next 10 minutes please give me a call.’

“I returned it immediately on speed dial.”

Why, Connell asked himself, would a man well into his 50s with job security be so anxious to return a call left just before the close of business on a Friday?

“Quite simply,” Connell said, “I couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing a man who gave every bit of his considerable talents to his job, his court and his state, all day, every day. A man whom we honor tonight, whom we love and respect, and whose legacy will grow and continue to inspire us all in the fullness of time.

“Congratulations, Chief. Here’s to you!”