Nearly seven months after his appointment as founding dean of High Point University’s new law school, Mark Martin has not yet answered questions publicly about his role in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to reverse the 2020 election results.

But in a statement responding to The Assembly’s inquiries, the former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court defended himself against the backlash to his appointment, saying he has accepted the 2020 outcome and hopes “that reasonable people will take a close look at my career and not rush to judgment based on media reports (whether positive or negative).”

Martin would not agree to an interview, and did not answer specific questions from The Assembly

In January 2021, a New York Times article on events leading to the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol identified Martin as an informal Trump adviser who played a part in the former president’s legal strategy to overturn election results.

According to the Times report, Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a former N.C. congressman, “had connected the president to Mr. Martin, the former North Carolina justice, who had a radical interpretation of the Constitution: Vice President Mike Pence, he argued, had the power to stop the certification and throw out any results he deemed fraudulent.”  

Pence and his lawyers concluded he had no such authority, sparking anger and retaliation from Trump, including during the January 6 violent protests by his supporters. Legal experts across the political spectrum agree that neither law nor the Constitution supported any role for the vice president beyond presiding over the opening and counting of electoral votes.

The Times story and others reporting on Trump’s efforts to overturn the election also cited Martin as an adviser on a lawsuit filed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2020, using Texas as plaintiff in an effort to nullify other states’ election results. The court declined to hear the case.

And in March, in an article about gaps in White House phone logs from January 6, The Washington Post reported that Martin was one of several people Trump chose to call back that evening. According to Trump’s daily presidential diary for Jan. 6, the former president spoke with Martin for nine minutes at 7:30 p.m.

(The final report from the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol issued in late December notes the phone call. It also refers to Martin in several footnotes, largely repeating what had been reported by media outlets.) 

On June 7, two days before a congressional committee’s first hearing investigating the insurrection, High Point University announced it had hired Martin to lead its new school of law. At the time, Martin was dean and professor at the Regent University School of Law in Virginia.

The hire drew objections almost immediately, and progressive nonprofit Carolina Forward mounted a billboard and online campaign demanding that HPU withdraw the offer. Newspaper editorials, including one from the Greensboro News & Record’s Allen Johnson, called out the university and Martin for failing to address concerns.

Carolina Forward’s billboard protesting Martin’s appointment. (Courtesy of Carolina Forward)

High Point University President Nido Qubein told The Assembly he took the criticism seriously: ”I was not about to put this university in harm’s way. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are.” He said he’d sat with Martin ”eyeball to eyeball” to discuss the reports, and stuck with his choice.

Echoing HPU’s two public statements, Qubein said that Martin hadn’t testified before the January 6 committee, and said it would be irresponsible for him to act only on media reports. “If someone shows me something [improper], I will take action. And absent that, what can I do?”

Martin’s statement to The Assembly defended his 26-year record and “a lifetime of public service“ that has won bipartisan recognition. “I never have, nor ever will, support a betrayal of the Constitution or an insurrection of any kind,” he wrote.

“Individuals or parties who contest election results challenge them in court and then abide by those decisions. This is how the rule of law works,” Martin continued. “It is consistent with who I am, my life’s work, and the oath that I have taken to support the Constitution. Accordingly, I accepted the results of the 2020 election.”

But such a response “dodges the question,” said Duke law professor James E. Coleman Jr., who doesn’t think Martin’s status as a former chief justice should protect him from scrutiny.

“The question isn’t whether, ultimately, [Martin] supported the outcome,” Coleman said. “The question is whether he was part of an effort to overturn the outcome based on an argument that had no good-faith basis in law. Period.”

In a Charlotte Observer story from February 2021, former North Carolina Chief Justice Burley Mitchell said he didn’t see ethical problems with Martin offering legal opinions, though he disagreed with his former court colleague’s reported interpretations. Other legal experts, including Coleman, said Martin should be investigated for his role, or he should at least clarify his involvement.

Martin’s statement to The Assembly made no mention of Trump, focusing instead on his own service and commitment to building a school “that will work to improve the legal profession, promote the administration of justice, and uphold the rule of law.”

High Point University told The Assembly it has a major donor for the law school, which expects to open in fall 2024. The university has not named the donor.

Melanie Sill is a Triangle-based independent journalist and former top editor of The News & Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Southern California Public Radio-KPCC. She was founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University.

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Pam Kelley is a longtime Charlotte journalist. Her book, Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, is a 2023 North Carolina Reads book club selection. 

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