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Allen Johnson: Nonanswers from HPU on law dean and Jan. 6 won't cut it

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Mark Martin was named the founding dean of High Point University’s new law school two days before a U.S. House committee was scheduled to convene hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Had anybody at HPU thought about that?

Did anybody care?

Martin, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, comes to High Point with both an impressive resume and, as it turns out, some dubious luggage, much of it acquired on, and leading up to, the events of Jan. 6.

The most troubling of that baggage concerns implications that Martin may have been involved in Donald Trump’s attempts to subvert the results of the 2020 election.

Published reports say that Martin had a conversation with Trump on the day of the Capitol riot between 7:30-7:39 p.m., according to White House records made available to the Jan. 6 committee.

“That night,” The Washington Post reported on March 29, “Trump also spoke with lawyers supporting his election fight, such as former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Mark Martin and Cleta Mitchell, a veteran conservative Washington attorney who worked closely with Trump on contesting Biden’s victory in Georgia, according to the records.”

There’s more. The New York Times reported in early 2021 that Martin was one of the lawyers who in late 2020 advised Trump on strategies to stay in office even though he had lost to Joe Biden.

“Before Thanksgiving, a team of lawyers with close ties to the Trump campaign began planning a sweeping new lawsuit based on dubious allegations of “forged ballots and ‘deep state’ manipulation of voting machines,” the Times reported.

In other words, 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.

To be fair, Martin’s record of accomplishment is considerable.

He was the youngest Court of Appeals judge in state history and became the youngest justice at age 35.

He championed better funding for the courts and the overdue raising the age at which juveniles can be held accountable as adults in North Carolina from 16 to 18.

He appointed more than 60 experts to a statewide commission to study that issue among other ways the state’s courts could “continue meeting and adapting to the needs and expectations of citizens in the 21st century.”

When he was elected chief justice in 2014, he received broad bipartisan support.

And in 2006, when Martin, a Republican, was running for reelection as a justice on the state Supreme Court, he was endorsed by every living former chief justice, including Democrats Henry Frye, Jim Exum and Burley Mitchell. (Yes, Martin was running against one of the oddest court candidates in recent memory, Democrat Rachel Lea Hunter, who nicknamed herself “Madame Justice” and had to walk back a claim that she had been endorsed by Dean Smith. But those same former justices endorsed Martin again in 2013 for chief justice.)

The issue is a pertinent one and HPU’s, and Martin’s, silence about it is troubling.

The best the university has done is a nonanswer in a nonstatement through a spokeswoman: “Dean Martin served admirably and honorably as Chief Justice of our State’s Supreme Court. We are excited about working with him to establish a new law school, one with a national reputation for excellence.”

Martin returns to North Carolina after serving as dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va., whose founder and CEO is televangelist Pat Robertson.

When previously asked about his ties to Trump while at Regent, Martin had no comment.

That shouldn’t have done then and it won’t do now.

As for the bigger picture, this is not a good look for HPU, for Martin, for the new law school or for Qubein.

Some faculty and students say they are deeply troubled by the Martin hire but afraid to speak for fear of repercussions, including being fired.

They cite a culture on campus that they say discourages dissenting opinions.

Qubein has had an almost magical run at HPU, where all he touches seems to turn to gold: Donations. Enrollment. Expansion. Rankings.

This risks tarnishing all that.

It jeopardizes the recruitment of new faculty and students.

It affects the morale of students and faculty already in the fold.

In the case of this new dean’s possible involvement in a plot to thwart a legitimate election, HPU’s silence is far from golden.

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