Lawmakers emphasize case against judge’s $677 million Leandro spending order

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  • State legislative leaders filed a new court document Wednesday emphasizing their argument that a trial judge lacked "subject matter jurisdiction" to order $677 million in new state education spending.
  • The state Supreme Court will take up the case commonly known as Leandro on Feb. 22. If justices agree with lawmakers, they could throw out a series of lower court orders dating back to 2018.
  • The funding is tied to a multiyear, court-endorsed comprehensive remedial plan developed without legislative input.

Two weeks before the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments again in the 30-year-old education funding dispute commonly known as Leandro, state legislative leaders restated an argument that could throw out court orders in the case dating back to 2018.

The state’s highest court takes up the case again on Feb. 22. Leading lawmakers filed Wednesday what is likely their final written brief before oral arguments.

Legislators challenge an April 2023 court order from Superior Court Judge James Ammons. Ammons called on the state to spend an additional $677 million for education-related purposes across North Carolina. That money is tied to a multiyear, court-endorsed statewide comprehensive remedial plan.

The latest court filing emphasized lawmakers’ argument that a trial judge lacked “subject matter jurisdiction” to order the government to take any action on statewide education spending.

While many people refer to the case as Leandro, the name of the original lead plaintiff in the 1994 lawsuit, lawmakers and Republican Supreme Court justices label the case “Hoke County.” A November 2022 decision from the high court is known either as Leandro IV or Hoke County III.

“Despite Appellees’ repeated — and repetitive — assertions that Hoke County III1 has already answered all of the questions presented by this appeal, the fact remains that Hoke County III did not address whether Plaintiffs had standing to obtain statewide relief in the form of orders requiring the State to implement and fund the CRP,” lawmakers’ lawyers wrote. “This is a critical problem.”

“Plaintiffs never even alleged, much less proved, the existence of a statewide violation,” the brief continued. “Instead, Plaintiffs have asserted claims that, by their very nature, turn on the conditions in their individual school districts. The trial court’s orders requiring the CRP thus raise an obvious and fundamental question: If Plaintiffs only asserted claims concerning conditions in their individual districts, how could they have standing to represent — or obtain orders on behalf of — students in districts where they do not live?”

Lawmakers emphasized the decision in a 2004 case known as Leandro II or Hoke County I. “In Hoke County I, the Court held that, at most, Plaintiffs only had standing to obtain relief on behalf of the students in their respective school districts — not those who live anywhere else,” lawmakers’ brief argued. “Thus, Plaintiffs are correct that the outcome of this appeal is dictated by the ‘law of the case.’ They just fail to recognize the law that governs was established twenty years ago in Hoke County I, rather than Hoke County III.”

“The conclusion that Plaintiffs lacked standing to obtain relief beyond their individual school districts has serious implications for this case,” the brief continued. “It means that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue orders requiring ‘the State’ to develop, implement, and fund a statewide ‘remedy’ in the form of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.”

Multiple trial court orders in the case “all exceeded the court’s jurisdiction,” lawmakers argued. “For that reason, the entire series of orders, starting with Judge [David] Lee’s 2018 orders requiring development of the CRP through to Judge Ammons’ order on remand, should be overturned for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

The state Supreme Court voted 5-2 in October to take another look at the case. The decision to split the court along party lines. Republicans agreed to grant another review. Democrats dissented.

Justice Anita Earls explained in a dissent why she and fellow Democratic Justice Allison Riggs would have rejected lawmakers’ request.

“Legislative-Intervenors’ bypass petition should be denied because it is substantively hollow and procedurally improper. This Court resolved the question of subject-matter jurisdiction in Leandro IV,” Earls wrote. “In that case — just 11 months old — the Legislative-Intervenors raised the same arguments they do in their bypass petition: That the trial court lacked jurisdiction to remedy constitutional deficiencies in public education. We examined that claim and ‘unequivocally rejected’ it.”

Earls rejected state lawmakers’ arguments that the case should focus only on Hoke County schools.

“Since the trial court found a statewide constitutional violation, we explained, it had subject-matter jurisdiction to order a statewide remedy,” she wrote. “But the Legisative-Intervenors ignored the trial court’s sound analysis and solid conclusion. They instead argued before us — as they do now in their petition — that ‘there has never been a finding’ of a constitutional violation ‘beyond Hoke County.’ We rebuffed that argument. And we went further, decrying it as ‘a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of this case and the State’s constitutional obligations.’”

“If parties can reopen a case by casting their disagreement in the language of ‘jurisdiction,’ then our courts will be nothing but revolving doors and our decisions nothing but paper tigers,” Earls wrote. “This case shows the danger of that approach.”

“We already grappled with and resolved the question of subject matter jurisdiction in this case — nothing imperils that decision or requires us to revisit it,” she added. “But by alchemizing its disagreement with Leandro IV into a ‘jurisdictional’ issue, the majority gives itself a tool to rewrite — and litigants to resist — our earlier decisions.”

A concurrence from Justice Phil Berger Jr., joined by fellow Republican Justices Richard Dietz and Trey Allen, answered Earls’ critique.

“The premise of the dissent is that this Court already ‘resolved the question of subject-matter jurisdiction in [Hoke County III].’ The dissent is wrong,” Berger wrote.

Berger noted Earls’ earlier work as a lawyer helping plaintiffs add the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to the long-running case. The legal dispute had started with five different school systems.

“Core to their rationale for intervention was that every public school district faces its own unique educational challenges and groups of students or school districts in one area of our state are ill-suited to address the educational deficiencies in others,” he wrote.

“This raises questions that our Court has not yet addressed: If public school students or local school boards who are not parties to this case believe the remedial order does not sufficiently address the educational failure in their districts, are they bound by the remedial order?” Berger added. “If so, how were their rights adjudicated without their presence in the suit — an elementary principle of jurisdictional law.”

Berger wrote that Earls and the previous Supreme Court majority “rushed to complete its earlier opinion in this incredibly complex, novel case (one that has spanned decades) so that it could be released in November of last year. The failure to resolve these jurisdictional questions is not the first oversight from this Court’s rush to judgment in Hoke County III.”

“My dissenting colleague laments that subject matter is now being addressed because it will cause various harms to judicial integrity and ‘snuff out legal finality,’” Berger said of Earls. “Once again, we endure ad nauseum these fanciful protestations. But it is black letter law that courts cannot ignore potential defects in subject matter jurisdiction.”

“Even if we again failed to address jurisdictional concerns, these issues could be raised later in a collateral attack on the trial court’s order, causing tremendous chaos if steps are already being taken to execute the novel relief in the remedial order,” Berger warned.

“In its rush to publish an opinion in the prior matter, the majority declined to address fundamental subject matter jurisdiction questions,” Berger concluded. “To be sure, these issues were raised, but the majority chose to ignore the bedrock legal principle that courts must examine jurisdiction to act. Even legal neophytes understand that subject matter jurisdiction can never be waived and can be raised at any time.”

“Because these crucial issues of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and must be addressed by this Court, it is a sound exercise of this Court’s constitutional role to take this case and permit the parties to brief the various issues.”