Cumberland County Judge Ammons to take over Leandro case

Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons (Image from Friends of Judge Jim Ammons for Superior Court Facebook page)
  • Cumberland County Superior Court Judge James Ammons will take over North Carolina's long-running Leandro education funding case.
  • Ammons replaces Business Court Judge Michael Robinson, who requested removal from Leandro after overseeing the case since March.
  • The N.C. Supreme Court has ordered the Leandro trial judge to determine how much additional money the state must spend on public education. The Leandro judge also has been ordered to direct state officials to transfer money out of the state treasury to comply with the court order.

For the second time in less than a year, a new judge is taking over North Carolina’s long-running Leandro education funding case. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Ammons of Cumberland County will oversee the case moving forward.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby assigned the case to Ammons Thursday. The announcement came roughly one month after Judge Michael Robinson wrote to Newby asking to step away from the case. Robinson had overseen Leandro since March.

Ammons will “hold such sessions of court as may be set and to attend to such in-chambers matters and other business as may be necessary and proper for the orderly disposition of the case until otherwise ordered,” according to Newby’s order.

“Given his responsibilities as a North Carolina Business Court judge, Judge Robinson states … that he does not believe he can continue to preside over this case and at the same time carry his current responsibilities,” Newby explained.

Robinson’s letter to Newby, dated Nov. 30, reached the public on Thursday. “[I]t was my understanding from the inception of my involvement in this matter that it would be limited in time and scope,” Robinson wrote.

After Robinson issued an April 26 order in the case, the state Supreme Court decided on Nov. 4 to return the case to his court. The court’s 4-3 Democratic majority ordered Robinson to recalculate the amount of money the state would have to spend on court-ordered education programs. Supreme Court Democrats also ordered Robinson to force state executive branch officials to bypass the General Assembly and transfer Leandro funds out of the state treasury.

“Additionally, and most importantly, the Superior Court Judge presiding over the case was directed to monitor and oversee the litigation for the indefinite future,” Robinson wrote to Newby. “Given the procedural history of this litigation, now in its 27th year, it is likely that the continuing oversight by the assigned Superior Court Judge will require extensive periodic hearings for the foreseeable future.”

“I write you to respectfully request that, if I am still considered the presiding Superior Court judge in this matter, that the matter be reassigned to another Superior Court Judge,” Robinson wrote. “Given my workload and the demands of my docket as a Business Court Judge, it will be difficult to maintain oversight and jurisdiction over this case without the reassignment of some of my cases to my Business Court colleagues, each of whom already has a full docket and heavy workload.”

The timeline for future Leandro proceedings is unclear.

Parties in the case filed a document with Robinson’s court on Dec. 12, less than two weeks after the judge had submitted his letter to Newby. The Dec. 12 document spelled out a plan for the state to submit calculations of the Leandro spending obligation by Dec. 19, with other parties responding by Jan. 20, 2023.

One party in the case, State Controller Nels Roseland, objected to that timeline. Robinson never issued an order responding to the proposal.

Now Leandro lawyers will have to coordinate schedules with Ammons. Ammons is senior resident Superior Court judge in Judicial District 12C, covering part of Cumberland County. His term runs through 2026.

Ammons ran unopposed as an unaffiliated candidate in 2018. He remains unaffiliated with any political party, according to N.C. State Board of Elections voter registration records.  

A Dec. 19 filing from state lawyers suggests a new Leandro order could total $677 million, roughly $108 million less than the court-ordered funding Robinson endorsed in April.

Newby assigned Leandro to Robinson on March 21, the same day the full state Supreme Court ordered a trial court to re-examine the case.

Robinson’s predecessor, Union County Judge David Lee, had issued a November 2021 order calling for the state to spend an additional $1.75 billion on public education. That money was designed to cover two years of action items from a court-endorsed Leandro plan.

Lee had overseen the case since 2016. He had taken over from Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who had overseen Leandro since the 1990s. Manning stepped away from the case for health reasons.

The Leandro case, officially known now as Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina, dates back to 1994. It has produced three major state Supreme Court decisions in 1997, 2004, and in November.