Legislators urge N.C. Supreme Court to reassert limits of judges’ education authority

Attorney Matthew Tilley argues on behalf of N.C. legislative leaders during a Leandro court hearing. (Image from WRAL.com pool coverage)

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  • State legislative leaders argue a trial court's $785 million Leandro spending order exceeds judicial authority over public education.
  • Top lawmakers urge the N.C. Supreme Court to reassert limits on judicial authority spelled out in two earlier Leandro rulings.

N.C. legislative leaders want the state Supreme Court to reject a plan that would call for the forced transfer of $785 million for court-ordered education spending. Top legislators make their case in a new brief tied to the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.

Dated July 1, the brief challenges a trial judge’s order to bypass the General Assembly and force other state government officials to transfer money for education purposes.

Legislators argue that court order defies previous Supreme Court decisions in the long-running Leandro case.

“This Court’s first opportunity to consider this matter came in 1996. In that opinion, Chief Justice Burley Mitchell specifically articulated the limits on judicial review and supervision of education policy and funding in North Carolina, holding that the ‘administration of the public schools of the state is best left to the legislative and executive branches of government,’” wrote attorney Matthew Tilley.

“Six years later, this Court reiterated the principles of judicial restraint that Chief Justice Mitchell articulated, noting the superior expertise of the legislative and executive branches, and recognizing the Judicial Branch’s limitations in providing remedies ‘in service to a subject matter, such as public school education, that is within their primary domain,’” Tilley added.

“In the succeeding 20 years, the trial court has increasingly disregarded this Court’s holdings on the limits of judicial authority over public education policy and funding. During that time, a decision that this Court expressly limited to the constitutionality of school conditions in Hoke County mutated into a platform for seemingly permanent judicial supervision over all aspects of public education policy and funding in the State of North Carolina. This Court, applying its prior decisions in this very case, should reiterate the limitations of the Judicial Branch’s authority to provide remedies for violations related to public education and the limited scope of the matter that is actually before the Court.”

The specific issue that returned the Leandro case to the state’s highest court involved a dispute over a Nov. 10, 2021, order from Superior Court Judge David Lee. Lee ordered the state controller, treasurer, and Office of State Budget and Management to transfer $1.75 billion out of the state treasury.

The money would have covered two years of a Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. San Francisco-based education consultants developed the multiyear, multibillion-dollar plan with support from the Leandro plaintiffs and the State Board of Education. Lee endorsed the plan.

Lee’s replacement, Judge Michael Robinson, cut the $1.75 billion figure down to $785 million. Robinson determined that the state budget enacted eight days after Lee’s order covered more than half of the spending in Lee’s original plan.

Robinson also cut out the portion of Lee’s order forcing state officials to move money without legislative authorization. In separate court filings July 1, Leandro plaintiffs and state government lawyers have urged the Supreme Court to reinstate that portion of Lee’s Nov. 10 order.

Lawmakers oppose the forced money transfer. They also take issue with Lee’s ruling, upheld by Robinson, to take decisions about N.C. public education policy out of the legislature’s hands.

Tilley’s brief urges the state Supreme Court to address a series of questions.

“Did the trial court violate the separation of powers, reflected in Article I, section 6 of the North Carolina State Constitution, by purporting to exercise legislative powers that are entrusted exclusively to the General Assembly?” the brief asked.

“Did the trial court issue an impermissible advisory opinion by dictating the programs and funding that must be implemented for North Carolina’s statewide educational system, over an eight-year period, in the absence of any claim or judgment that the State system as a whole was somehow insufficient to provide children the opportunity for a sound basic education?”

“Did the trial court improperly decide a political question by issuing an order requiring the State to implement, and fund, each element of the Plaintiff’s proposed Comprehensive Remedial Plan (“CRP”)?”

“Did the trial court err by issuing a statewide ‘remedy,’ in the form of Plaintiffs’ proposed Comprehensive Remedial Plan, despite this Court’s express instruction in Leandro II that the only judgment — and any mandates that flow from it — must be limited to just Hoke County?”

“Did the trial court err by entering a statewide judgment based on a supposed statewide constitutional violation that was never asserted, never made the subject of a judgment, and on which there was never any evidence submitted at trial?”

“Did the trial court err by refusing to presume that the measures adopted in the 2021 Appropriations Act — which is an act of the General Assembly — were constitutional and sufficient to provide children a sound basic education?”

“Did the trial court apply the wrong standard when assessing the constitutionality of the 2021 Appropriations Act, by judging it not against the constitutional standards for a sound basic education set forth in Leandro I and II, but instead by whether it funded the individual measures Plaintiffs had requested through the Comprehensive Remedial Plan?”

“Did the trial court err by concluding that each of the at least 146 actions in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan was necessary to remedy alleged violations of the State’s obligation to provide children a sound basic education and that no alternatives to those proposals existed?”

Leandro plaintiffs, legislators’ attorneys, and the N.C. Justice Department will have a chance to respond to competing arguments in the next set of briefs in the case. Those briefs are due Aug. 1 at the state Supreme Court, with final paperwork to be submitted by Aug. 12.

The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments during the week of Aug. 29.