Leandro plaintiffs ask state’s highest court to steer clear of latest dispute

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

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  • Leandro plaintiffs are asking the state Supreme Court to reject a petition from state legislative leaders. Top lawmakers want the high court to take another look at the long-running education funding lawsuit.
  • Lawyers for the Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance County schools urge the Supreme Court to stay out of the latest dispute. It involves Judge Ammons' order for $677 million in state education spending.
  • State Attorney General Josh Stein's Justice Department also objects to lawmakers' request. A court filing from Justice Department lawyers criticized the Supreme Court for its "failure" to set a schedule for resolving outstanding Leandro issues.
  • Ammons' order, issued in April, did not indicate how the money would reach education agencies. A proposed forced money transfer remains tied up by an order from the state Court of Appeals.

Plaintiffs in North Carolina’s long-running Leandro education funding lawsuit have asked the state Supreme Court to reject the latest petition from state legislative leaders. Top lawmakers are asking the court to take another look at Leandro.

State Attorney General Josh Stein’s Justice Department also opposed lawmakers’ actions. In its own court filing, the Justice Department cited the state Supreme Court’s “failure” to resolve outstanding Leandro issues.

Lawyers for the Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance County school boards filed paperwork Wednesday with the state’s highest court. These school boards, the official plaintiffs in the Leandro case, oppose lawmakers’ petition to move the case’s latest dispute out of the state Court of Appeals. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board filed a separate document opposing lawmakers’ request.

“The Rules of Appellate Procedure apply to all litigants who come before this Court,” wrote Leandro plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by Melanie Black Dubis. “The integrity of our judicial system is founded on the faithful adherence to the established procedures which govern its proceedings. Yet, with their recent Petition, Petitioners ask this Court for a third time: will this Court break its own rules and established precedent for them? The answer to that question — again — must be ‘no.’”

“Nearly every litigant who loses in this Court wants a ‘redo,’ and Petitioners have made it clear they do not agree with this Court’s 4 November 2022 decision in this case,” the court filing continued.

That November decision, labeled “Leandro IV” by plaintiffs and “Hoke County III” by legislative leaders, called for a trial judge to determine how much more money the state should spend to cover unfunded items in a court-endorsed comprehensive remedial plan tied to Leandro.

In April, Superior Court Judge James Ammons set that spending mandate at $677 million. Ammons’ order did not indicate how the spending order would be enforced. A separate order from the state Court of Appeals has blocked Ammons or any other trial judge from forcing state executive branch officials to move money out of the state treasury without legislative approval.

Since the state Supreme Court’s last Leandro ruling, voters replaced two Democratic justices with Republicans. The 4-3 Democratic majority that issued the November ruling with a party-line vote has been replaced by a court with a 5-2 Republican majority.

Now, “under the guise” of appealing Ammons’ ruling, legislative leaders “ask this Court to reconsider the holdings of the Leandro IV decision and indeed ‘overturn’ it,” according to Leandro plaintiffs. “There is no procedural mechanism that could possibly permit such convoluted gamesmanship before this Honorable Court.”

“Their Petition … amounts to an improper procedural gambit to re- litigate the same issues, already decided against them, in front of a newly-constituted Court,” the court filing argued.

Amar Majmundar in court
N.C. Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar argues for the State Board of Education in a Leandro hearing. (Image from WRAL.com pool coverage)

The state Justice Department filing targeted lawmakers’ legal actions. “North Carolina’s schoolchildren deserve better. For decades, they have been denied their constitutional right to a sound basic public education,” wrote lawyers led by Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar. “In November, this Court attempted to right that wrong, by confirming that our State’s courts have the responsibility to remedy ongoing constitutional violations. Legislative Intervenors disagreed with that ruling — and they have spent the past year seeking to undo it.”

“This Court has done little to quell the legislature’s resistance — and at times has facilitated it,” the Justice Department lawyers argued. “In March, this Court reinstated a Writ of Prohibition previously entered by the Court of Appeals, even though the writ prevented
the trial court from complying with Leandro IV’s remand order and even though Leandro IV held that the Court of Appeals had erred in granting the writ.”

“The Court said it was only reinstating the writ until it had an ‘opportunity to address the remaining issues in this case.’ But the Court has let the parties’ request for a briefing schedule on those issues languish for seven months,” the Justice Department court filing indicated.

“The Court’s failure to set a briefing schedule has effectively rewarded Legislative Intervenors’ obstinance,” state lawyers argued.

“Enough is enough. The schoolchildren in our State cannot afford to wait another day to get the educations they deserve. This Court should deny Legislative Intervenors’ petition and vacate the Writ of Prohibition,” according to the Justice Department brief.

Lawmakers officially asked for a new state Supreme Court review of the Leandro case on Sept. 20.

The state’s highest court could address two issues in the case officially known as Hoke County Board of Education v. State. First, did Ammons make the correct decision in April to order $677 million in new state education spending tied to a court-endorsed Leandro comprehensive remedial plan? Second, does the judge have authority to force state executive branch officials to move money out of the state treasury without the legislature’s consent?

The $677 million funding order sits now at the state Court of Appeals. Lawyers for state legislative leaders signaled on Sept. 18 that they planned to ask the Supreme Court to bypass the intermediate appellate court. On the same day, the Appeals Court granted lawmakers an extension that would give the Supreme Court time to decide whether to take the case.

“Judge Ammons’s order raises critical questions of constitutional law that were left open by Hoke County III,” wrote lawmakers’ attorneys in the Supreme Court petition filed Wednesday. “At minimum, these issues include how the Court should calculate the amounts necessary to fund the CRP in future years, assuming the orders imposing the CRP are left to stand.”

“The order also raises larger issues and highlights why the majority’s decision in Hoke County III — which approved an unprecedented intrusion by the judiciary into role of the legislative branch — is simply unworkable,” lawmakers’ lawyers wrote. “These issues cannot be conclusively determined without review by this Court. Indeed, many of the issues raised by Judge Ammons’s order can only be resolved by this Court.”

“This Court has previously granted bypass review on two occasions in this case, noting the that the subject matter involves issues of ‘paramount’ public interest as well as questions of law that are important to the jurisprudence of this State,” the petition continued. “Following this Court’s historical practice in this case, Legislative Intervenors once again petition this Court to grant review now, before a determination by the Court of Appeals, to provide definitive guidance regarding the implementation and continuing validity, if any, of the Court’s decision in Hoke County III.”

Ammons’ 12-page order last April rejected proposed revisions from state legislative leaders. Those revisions would have reduced the outstanding Leandro spending obligation from $677 million to as little as $376 million.

Two different judges overseeing the Leandro case before Ammons had calculated the state’s outstanding education spending obligation as $1.75 billion in November 2021 and $785 million in April 2022. The smaller $677 million figure indicated that the last two signed state budgets addressed more than $1 billion in Leandro-related items from the original 2021 calculation.

Ammons’ order specifically set the Leandro spending obligation at $509,701,707 for the NC Department of Public Instruction, $133.9 million for the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and $34.2 million for the University of North Carolina System.

Those numbers matched calculations first put forward by NC Justice Department lawyers last December, little more than one month after the state Supreme Court’s directive. The Office of State Budget and Management, which works for Cooper, prepared the calculations.

If the high court addresses Ammons’ calculation of outstanding Leandro obligation, it might also decide whether a trial judge can bypass the General Assembly to address Leandro.

The November 2021 order, from Judge David Lee, would have forced the state budget director, controller, and treasurer to move $1.75 billion out of the state treasury. The money would have covered two years of otherwise unfunded items in the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan.

The controller objected to the forced money transfer and secured a “writ of prohibition” from the Court of Appeals. That writ blocked the forced transfer piece of Lee’s order.

By April 2022, after Judge Michael Robinson replaced Lee in presiding over the case, the forced money transfer was not included in a revised order. Robinson called for $785 million in Leandro spending, once again focusing on two years of the court-endorsed plan.

The state Supreme Court’s November 2022 ruling would have permitted the forced money transfer. But the new Supreme Court majority responded to the controller’s ongoing objections by restoring the writ of prohibition in March. No judge can bypass the General Assembly for Leandro spending unless the Supreme Court issues a new ruling.

Legislators’ latest Supreme Court petition argued that the forced money transfer “would violate the separation of powers.” “The parties’ appeals and petitions from that Writ of Prohibition remain pending from this Court,” lawmakers reminded Supreme Court justices.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include the NC Justice Department’s latest court filing.