Leandro plaintiffs ask N.C. Supreme Court to restore court-ordered money transfer

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

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  • Plaintiffs in the Leandro education funding lawsuit say a judge was wrong to scrap a court order forcing government officials to transfer money from the state treasury.
  • The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case in August. At issue is a judge's ability to force the state to comply with Leandro funding orders.

Plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro education funding lawsuit argue that a Superior Court judge was wrong to strike down his predecessor’s order transferring money out of the state treasury.

A brief filed Friday asks the N.C. Supreme Court to strike down that portion of a $785 million order from Judge Michael Robinson. Plaintiffs argue that only the state’s highest court can decide now whether a trial judge had the power to order a money transfer from the treasury without the legislature’s authority.

“The trial court cannot, with the stroke of a pen, displace this Court as the final arbiter of the significant constitutional questions over which it had already accepted review,” wrote attorney Melanie Black Dubis.

Friday marked the deadline set by the state Supreme Court for opening briefs in the latest courtroom skirmish in Leandro, which is known officially as Hoke County Board of Education v. State. The case started in 1994. It has produced two major state Supreme Court rulings, in 1997 and 2004.

At issue is a court’s power to enforce a judgment that state government has underfunded a court-ordered education plan. Known officially as the comprehensive remedial plan, the document prepared by San Francisco-based consultants would involve billions of dollars of new state education spending over multiple years.

A Nov. 10, 2021, court order from Superior Court Judge David Lee called for state officials to transfer $1.75 billion out of the treasury and into the accounts of two state government departments and the University of North Carolina System. The money would cover items included in two years of the comprehensive plan.

One official targeted for the court-ordered money transfer, State Controller Linda Combs, objected. She argued to the N.C. Court of Appeals that she could not comply with the court order. Combs said she could transfer money only with authorization from state lawmakers.

The Appeals Court agreed with Combs. It granted a rare “writ of prohibition” blocking Lee’s order. Leandro plaintiffs appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which agreed in March to hear the case. First, the state’s highest court asked Lee to review his order. Justices wanted to know whether the state budget signed into law on Nov. 18, 2021, affected the $1.75 billion price tag of his order.

On the same day that the full Supreme Court ordered that review, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee with Robinson. On April 26 Robinson determined that the budget had addressed more than half of Lee’s funding demands. Ruling that the state still owed $785 million from Lee’s original order, Robinson struck down the portion of Lee’s order calling for Combs and other officials to transfer money without the legislature’s input.

“The trial court did not have jurisdiction on remand to strike the remedial portion of an order already on appeal to this Court,” Dubis argued Friday.

Leandro plaintiffs contend the state Supreme Court must address “critical constitutional questions”:  “(1) the role of the judiciary in vindicating the fundamental constitutional rights of North Carolina children, the continuing violations of which have long been established under the unique circumstances presented in this 28-year-long litigation; (2) the remedial powers available to the judiciary when faced with a recalcitrant General Assembly that refuses to provide the funding necessary to implement the only comprehensive remedial plan presented by the State since this Court’s 2004 Leandro II decision; and (3) whether the trial court had the authority (and duty), under the circumstances of this constitutional case, to order the transfer of funds.”

“The answers to these critical questions … will determine whether this Court’s unanimous decisions in Leandro I and Leandro II, and indeed the fundamental educational rights granted to the children under the Constitution, have any real meaning,” Dubis wrote.

Leandro plaintiffs expect to file additional arguments with the Supreme Court by Aug. 1. All paperwork in the case is to be filed by Aug. 12. The Supreme Court plans to hold oral arguments in the case during the week of Aug. 29.