Final briefs pave way for N.C. Supreme Court’s latest take on long-running Leandro case

Attorney Melanie Black Dubis argues on behalf of Leandro plaintiffs. (Image from pool footage)

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  • Parties in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit are submitting final briefs ahead of Aug. 31 N.C. Supreme Court oral arguments in the case.
  • The state's highest court will determine whether a judge can order $785 million in new state education spending. Justices also will decide whether a judge can bypass the General Assembly to move the money to state agencies.

Documents filed Friday with the N.C. Supreme Court offered what could be the final written words in the latest stage of the Leandro education funding lawsuit.

The state’s highest court will hold oral arguments Aug. 31 to consider the latest Leandro dispute. By unanimous agreement of all parties, the standard hourlong arguments have been extended to 90 minutes.

Justices will decide whether a trial judge can order the state to spend an additional $785 million to fund items from a court-sanctioned Leandro plan. The Supreme Court also will decide whether a judge can bypass the General Assembly and order other state government officials to transfer the $785 million out of the state treasury.

Friday marked the deadline for final written briefs in the case. It’s officially titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State. Originally filed in 1994, the case has produced major state Supreme Court rulings in 1997 and 2004.

Leandro plaintiffs support the additional court-ordered spending and money transfer. They emphasize the state’s failure to meet Supreme Court mandates from previous Leandro rulings.

“The central question before this Court is: when ongoing violations of fundamental constitutional rights have been established, does the judiciary have any authority — after 17 years — to order a remedy, or must it bow to legislative inaction and recalcitrance?” asked attorney Melanie Black Dubis.

Dubis’ brief takes aim at Republican state legislative leaders, who are known as “intervenor defendants” in the case.

“Intervenor Defendants try to obfuscate this question by ignoring and misstating 17-years-worth of findings of fact that were never appealed, and by mischaracterizing the legal posture of the case,” Dubis wrote. “This is not a case about whether the legislative or executive branch has the ‘power of the purse.’ This case is about the role of the Court when the State is violating the fundamental constitutional rights of North Carolina’s children. After seventeen years, the time has come for this Court to tell the children if their constitutional right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in a public school actually means something, or if it is just a promise ‘made to the ear but intended to be broken in the heart.’”

State Senior Deputy Attorney Amar Majmundar filed a brief representing the executive branch of state government. It responds to legislative leaders and to acting state Controller Nels Roseland, who objects to the forced money transfer.

“Legislative Intervenors and the Controller say that the Separation of Powers and Appropriations Clauses of our Constitution shield the State from constitutional accountability. Not so,” Majmundar wrote. “Legislative Intervenors’ and the Controller’s arguments about the Appropriations Clause ignore that clause’s plain text. Their Separation of Powers Clause arguments, meanwhile, mischaracterize the trial court’s orders. Specifically, they claim that the trial court dictated an ideal system of education and ordered the General Assembly to appropriate funds to pay a money judgment against the State. Neither assertion is true.”

“The trial court’s order merely directs the State to provide a system of education that is minimally adequate to satisfy its constitutional obligations,” he added. “That order neither deprives the political branches of their ability to set education policy, nor requires the State to pay damages for a past constitutional violation.”

A second group of plaintiffs, considered intervenors, also takes aim at legislators and the state controller.

“The common thread among all of Intervenor-Defendants’ and the Controller’s arguments is that the Court should permit the legislature to avoid liability at all costs — even at the expense of schoolchildren,” wrote attorney Christopher Brooke. “But many of these far-reaching defenses are irrelevant to the consideration of the 26 April 2022 Order — the subject of this appeal — and none deserve serious consideration.”

“The Court has made clear — in this case, as well as several others — that the judiciary has the authority to interpret rights and obligations due under the Constitution, and it can, indeed must, enforce constitutional rights when they are abridged — without interference from the legislature,” Brook added.

Representing Republican legislative leaders, attorney Matthew Tilley challenges basic arguments in the other parties’ briefs. Legislative leaders say the plaintiffs and other state actors misread the state Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in the case, known as Leandro II.

“Plaintiffs, Plaintiff-Intervenors, and the Executive Branch agencies represented by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) simply refuse to accept that this Court’s decision in Leandro II limited the one-and-only ‘Liability Judgment’ entered after the one-and-only trial in this matter — and any mandates that flow from them — to just Hoke County,” Tilley wrote. “They also ignore that Leandro II upheld the trial court’s findings that the ‘bulk of the core’ of the State’s educational delivery system, including its ‘funding allocation systems,’ met constitutional standards.”

“Instead, Plaintiffs and DOJ persistently try to recast both this Court’s decision in Leandro II and the trial court’s subsequent remedial proceedings to suggest that they somehow, at some unidentified point in time, resulted in a judgment establishing a statewide violation that might support the trial court’s imposition of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan (“CRP”) and its orders requiring the State to pay for it,” he added.

The state Supreme Court faces no timetable for issuing a ruling after the late-August oral arguments.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. Monday as additional briefs became available online.