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July 27, 2021 Feature

Sorting Out the Judge Martins in North Carolina

By Judge Mary-Margaret Anderson (Ret.)

The last name Martin1 is a common one in past and present Cherokee legal history. John Martin was an active member and leader of the Cherokee Nation and the first chief justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court. A brief profile of that Judge Martin is included in A History of the Cherokee Supreme Court. He clearly led a very colorful and interesting life that included reestablishing the court post removal to what is now Oklahoma. The author of the book is Judge J. Matthew Martin, a former trial court judge for the Eastern Band of Cherokee. And author Judge Matt Martin’s father, John C. Martin, became the chief justice for the Eastern Band in 2000. I was curious about any familial relationship, as well as the back story for the book, and sought out Judge Matt Martin for more information.

It turns out that that the only thing in common, besides their service to the Cherokee, is the last name. Judge Matt Martin assured me that his ancestors, although present in the United States since the Revolutionary War, are of German heritage, while the Cherokee Martins were English. Regardless, how he and his father became tribal judges is an interesting story.

The senior Judge Martin had a long career in the state courts of North Carolina. Starting as a trial judge, he rose to be the chief judge of the Court of Appeals until his mandatory retirement in 1992 at age 72. But he was not ready for retirement, and his son was well aware of that fact. Judge Matt Martin heard about an opening at the Cherokee Court and urged his father to look into it. Agreeing to do so while at the same time stating that he would not take the position, Judge John Martin did take the job. At age 80. And after commenting that this was a place where elders were appreciated, he went on to serve a six-year term.

Meanwhile, Judge Matt Martin was practicing capital criminal defense and looking for a change. He asked his father if there were any openings in the Cherokee system. His father replied yes, there was an opening at the trial level, but that he would not be hired because he was, of course, his son. Nonetheless, Judge Matt Martin was nominated by the Tribal Chief and confirmed by the Tribal Council. He went on to serve 13 years and developed a keen interest and expertise in Cherokee law.

Judge Matt Martin enrolled in the University of Nevada, Reno/National Judicial College judicial studies program, and his research into early Cherokee legal history culminated in the dissertation, which formed the basis of this book. He was awarded his doctorate in 2020. Although now a U.S. administrative law judge, he remains active and involved in Indian Country legal affairs, including as the ABA Tribal Courts Fellow and as faculty at the National Judicial College. Judge Matt Martin is hopeful that his book will help advance understanding of the history of tribal court systems. Clearly, this is a realistic goal. Despite the recency of publication, it was quoted in an amicus brief in United States v. Cooley, a crucial case concerning tribal sovereignty now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.


1. The state of North Carolina has been served by a third Judge Martin. Now Dean of the Regent University Law School, Mark Martin’s judicial career culminated in his service as chief judge of the North Carolina Supreme Court from 2014–2019. He was elected chair of the ABA Judicial Division in 2013.

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By Judge Mary-Margaret Anderson (Ret.)