Legislative leaders, Leandro plaintiffs clash over court-ordered N.C. education spending

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

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  • Legislative leaders and Leandro plaintiffs offer contrasting arguments to the N.C. Supreme Court in the latest stage of the long-running education funding lawsuit.
  • Final briefs in the case are due Aug. 12, with oral arguments scheduled for Aug. 31.

Less than a month before the N.C. Supreme Court takes its latest look at the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, state legislative leaders and Leandro plaintiffs are unveiling their competing arguments.

Those arguments arrive in new briefs filed Monday with the state’s highest court.

Justices will determine whether a trial judge can order state government to spend an additional $785 million on education-related expenses. That money is tied to a court-sanctioned comprehensive remedial plan written to help resolve the Leandro dispute.

The state Supreme Court will also decide whether a trial judge can force state government officials to transfer money out of the state treasury without input from the General Assembly. Judge David Lee ordered a forced money transfer of $1.75 billion in connection with Leandro in November 2021.

Lee’s successor in the Leandro case, Judge Michael Robinson, dropped the forced money transfer in April and cut the size of Lee’s order from $1.75 billion to $785 million.

Legislative leaders say “no” to both the court-ordered spending and the forced money transfer. They argue that Leandro court proceedings have turned into a joint venture between the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and state government’s executive branch to secure more taxpayer money for education. That’s been true since longtime Leandro trial Judge Howard Manning stepped down from the case in 2016, lawmakers assert.

“Plaintiffs hope to make an end-run around the legislative process — capitalizing on the Executive Branch’s cooperation and the lack of any genuine adversarial proceedings in the years since Judge Manning’s retirement to wrest control of the State’s education system from the people and their representatives so they can dictate how North Carolina’s public school system will be administered and funded through judicial orders,” wrote attorney Matthew Tilley, who represents top legislative officers.

“No doubt, Plaintiffs mean to do good. Indeed, Legislative-Intervenors do not doubt that Plaintiffs sincerely believe the Comprehensive Remedial Plan (‘CRP’) they developed in cooperation with the Executive Branch is a ‘good plan,’” Tilley added. “That does not entitle them, however, to an exemption from the legislative process or to substitute their judgment for that of the people’s elected representatives. Nor does it entitle them to spend public money without an appropriation as required under the Appropriations Clause found in Article V, Section 7 of the State Constitution.”

On the other side of the case, Leandro plaintiffs point to the General Assembly’s failure to comply with its constitutional duties.

“This case is — and has always been — about the fundamental constitutional right of every child in North Carolina to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in the public schools,” wrote plaintiff’s attorney Melanie Black Dubis. “This case is now also about the General Assembly’s disregard of its affirmative constitutional duty to ‘guard and protect’ that fundamental right for over two decades. In light of the State’s admitted and continuing constitutional violations, and after 17 years of deference to the other two branches of government, the trial court was correct to order certain state actors to transfer the funds necessary to implement the only constitutional remedy before it.”

A second set of intervening plaintiffs’ echoed Dubis’ concerns.

“This is no ordinary case. It is a case that demands a remedy consistent with the judiciary’s duties and powers to right constitutional wrongs,” wrote attorney Christopher Brook. “That wrong here is a violation of a constitutional right that this Court has deemed paramount and fundamental. It is a violation of an affirmative constitutional obligation due from the Defendants State of North Carolina and State Board of Education … to ensure all children … have the opportunity for a sound basic education.”

“It is a continuing violation that has spanned at least 17 years and remains without a remedy, as the harms have mounted with each class passing through the halls in dismal, inadequate learning conditions — conditions even worse for the state’s at-risk students,” Brook added. “It is a violation identified by the judiciary, but on which the trial court has deferred again and again to the executive and legislative branches to present a remedy to no avail, until 2021.”

Lawyers from Attorney General Josh Stein’s N.C. Justice Department took aim at legislators’ arguments.

“Strikingly, Legislative Intervenors’ sudden desire to actively relitigate this case comes after years of refusing to participate — either in litigation or through legislative enactments,” wrote Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar. “But their arguments and approach, rather than finally showing a true willingness to become constructively involved, provide further evidence that the legislative leaders are either unable — or simply unwilling — to lead their respective chambers to fulfill the State’s constitutional duty to provide a sound, basic education for all of its children.”

Final briefs in the case are due Aug. 12. The state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Aug. 31. Justices will issue a decision at an undetermined later date.