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Founder of Cherokee court system reflects on storied legal career

Seventy-six years ago, Harry Martin decided he wanted to become a lawyer. He was 15, and knew little to nothing about the law. Or about being a lawyer, for that matter.

If your mental math is swift, you’ll know that Harry Martin is now 91. In his ninth decade, he’s friendly and genteel, not unlike the kindly grandfathers you see in children’s books, and a lawyer now for more than 60 years.

On this particular Wednesday morning, his tweed jacket and red-and-navy striped bowtie enhance that image. He’s sitting in the office of his son, Matthew Martin, now a justice on the Cherokee Tribal Court — which the elder Martin helped found — recounting the story of his long and storied legal life, starting with that fateful adolescent decision.

In studying Harry Martin’s career, there arise a series of meritorious moments that are individually noteworthy in any career, but are pretty remarkable when rolled all into one. The odds on all of these things happening in one life are probably pretty long.

He has been, chronologically, a World War II serviceman, Harvard Law graduate, trial lawyer, superior court judge, state supreme court justice, plain old lawyer again and, finally, the founding supreme court justice of the Tribal Court of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Now he sort-of does freelance justicing for the court, plays bridge on Wednesdays and works out in the morning.

But really, with Martin, it’s the tangential detours that are the most interesting.

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“And then I stayed out of school for a year and worked and played in dance bands and so on,” says Martin.

Sorry, what?

The recorder was not rolling, and the reporter was having a drink of water instead of typing.

“Well, I had a scholarship based on my musical ability. I played the baritone horn and the trombone.”

OK. So what next?

Back to college, Chapel Hill this time. Could’ve been Davidson.

How did you choose?

By hitchhiking. Where the road splits — left to Chapel Hill, right to Davidson — a truckload of boys drives by. You going to Chapel Hill, they asked. Sure, why not.

Martin has a mid-tenor voice that carries only a slight Southern lilt, not crisp but deliberate, and his life has been full of these interesting side notes.

He lives now in a low-slung ranch house on the edge of Biltmore Forest, but spends a lot of his time in Cherokee, where he started the Tribal Court system in his 70s after being booted from the state supreme court.

At that level, there’s legislation that caps justices at the age of 72. By the time Martin got there, he would’ve been forced off in the middle of his second term.

He brought an age discrimination suit over it that eventually reached his own Supreme Court bench. He recused himself. And lost.

So he went back to practicing law.

“Of course, I had to leave the court. And as two or three others [justices] got caught up in age, a year-and-a-half, two years later, two or three of them talked to me and said, ‘You know, we were wrong in your case,’” said Martin, a slight, vindicated smile curving up his cheeks, the smirk of a trial lawyer who knew he was right.

But in 1980, soon after his departure from the Supreme Court, Martin got a call from Leon Jones, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Heard you left the court? Interested in another job?

Initially, Martin wasn’t. He had gone into practice with his son, Matthew, in Asheville and had little desire to leave the setup.

But, he said, Jones was persuasive, and with 26 years as a justice — 16 on the superior court and 10 on the state supreme court — who better to put down the fledgling court’s roots in fallow legal ground?

In Cherokee, though the tribe has had a court system since 1820, for decades it was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was a BIA court, run by BIA staff employed by the federal government and enforcing BIA laws.

When Martin came in, that changed and he cleaned house.

Justices, he said, must have a law degree and pass the bar.  

He lost some justices with that one, he said.

But after a few toddling first steps, the court has flourished and is now in it 21st year, run by the tribe and implementing Cherokee code. Although Martin is not a member of the tribe himself, his groundwork helped the tribe take over its own legal system.

Martin stepped back from the chief justice role after six or seven years and into a role as a regular justice. Now he fills in as a justice whenever he’s needed.

He’s 91, and he’s sharp. He’s quick to pull up specific cases and has that lawyerly trait of loving stories that illustrate points.

To show how he learned to rely on his own work, instead of what other lawyers have done, he tells the tale of poling across the French Broad river with an opposing attorney on a research trip, only to fail to file a motion on his return.

“I’ll bet you that George Ward and I are the only lawyers in Buncombe County that poled across the French Broad river trying to settle a case,” he said. “And I learned a lot from that.”

I have no idea what poling is. It sounds very Huck Finn-esque. But it painted a good picture of the point, and it is easy to see him flourishing in a trial setting.

He is detailed, but not florid; calm cheerfulness crossed with gravitas, but not solemnity.  

He’s still in it decades later, because he is genuinely enamored of the law. On his office desk are bowtie catalogues next to law reviews. He likes to talk about the law, read the law, joke about the law, even.

“People would ask me what it’s like to be on the Supreme Court and I would tell them, ‘Well, you can’t go to the bathroom unless you can get three other votes,’” jokes Martin.

His first month practicing in 1948, he made $15.

And at the end of his career, it’s safe to say he’s made history.

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