Controller objects to plan for responding to N.C. Supreme Court’s Leandro order

State Controller Nels Roseland presents evidence in a legislative committee. (Image from the N.C. General Assembly's YouTube channel)

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  • State Controller Nels Roseland objects to a timetable for addressing the N.C. Supreme Court's latest Leandro order.
  • Roseland could be forced to take part in the forced transfer of money from North Carolina's treasury to comply with court-ordered state education spending.
  • The timeline's first action is scheduled for Dec. 19.

The state controller is objecting to a timeline for addressing the N.C. Supreme Court’s latest Leandro education funding order. Paperwork filed Monday with the trial judge in the case spells out the details.

In a 4-3 decision last month, Supreme Court Democrats overruled Republican colleagues and ordered Judge Michael Robinson to recalculate his April Leandro order. Robinson had called for $785 million in additional state education funding. The Supreme Court indicated that the latest state budget might include funds that would cover portions of Robinson’s order.

The Supreme Court order also called for Robinson to force state government officials, including the controller, to transfer money from the state treasury to comply with the funding mandate.

Parties in the case submitted a plan Monday to address the Supreme Court’s latest ruling. The plan calls for some action as early as next week.

“[O]n or before 19 December 2022, Defendant State of North Carolina shall file with the Court an accounting showing the recalculations, if any, of the amount of funds to be transferred in light of the State’s 2022 Budget,” according to the court filing.

“[O]n or before 20 January 2023, Plaintiff Parties and any other party shall respond,” according to the document.

Only State Controller Nels Roseland has raised a formal objection.

“The State Controller indicated in writing that he opposes the proposed schedule,” according to the court filing. “The Controller’s stated objection provided to Plaintiffs by email is that additional procedures are needed to assure an accurate and responsible handling of any money which the Controller authorizes.”

“Due to the need for those additional procedures, the Controller believes it is premature to determine a scheduling order for the proceedings on remand,” the document continued. “Counsel for the Controller indicated he would make a subsequent filing to address these issues and requested his position be reported to the Court.”

Lawyers representing state legislative leaders, known in the case as “intervenor-defendants,” have reserved the right to reply to the schedule as well.

Roseland’s predecessor as controller, Linda Combs, launched the legal action that led the Leandro case back to the state Supreme Court this year. Robert Hunter, a former N.C. Appeals Court judge and N.C. Supreme Court justice, represented Combs and now represents Roseland.

Combs responded to a November 2021 order from Robinson’s predecessor as the Leandro trial judge. Judge David Lee had ordered an additional $1.75 billion in Leandro-related education spending. Lee also ordered Combs, the state budget director, and the state treasurer to take part in a transfer of funds that would bypass the traditional legislative budget process.

The controller objected. She filed paperwork with the N.C. Court of Appeals to block the forced money transfer. Combs argued that state law and her oath of office prevented her from transferring any funds without legislative authorization.

The Appeals Court agreed with Combs and blocked Lee’s order.

Advocates for court-mandated Leandro funding then appealed to the state Supreme Court. The state’s highest court agreed to take the case, but sent it back to the trial court first. There a new judge — Robinson — determined that the state budget signed into law eight days after Lee’s November 2021 order covered more than half of the items in Lee’s spending plan.

Robinson pared Lee’s order back from $1.75 billion to $785 million. Robinson struck Lee’s forced money transfer, refusing to disobey the Appeals Court’s order.

Over objections from Republican colleagues, state Supreme Court Democrats blocked the Appeals Court’s order and sent the case back to Robinson.

Whatever Robinson does in the weeks ahead, it’s likely that the case could return to the state’s highest court. The state Supreme Court has issued major Leandro rulings in 1997, 2004, and in November this year.

If the case returns to the high court after Jan. 1, the court’s partisan composition will have changed. Democratic Justice Robin Hudson, who wrote the latest Leandro decision, is retiring. Fellow Democrat Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV lost his re-election bid. Instead of a 4-3 Democratic majority, the new court will have a 5-2 split favoring Republicans.