N.C. Supreme Court denies request to strike plaintiffs brief from Leandro lawsuit

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  • A day before Wednesday's arguments in the Leandro case, justices voted along party lines to reject lawmakers' request to drop the plaintiffs Earls represented.

The N.C. Supreme Court voted 4-3 Tuesday to reject lawmakers’ request to strike the brief filed by a group of plaintiffs in the latest stage of the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. The ruling was in response to a request filed by attorneys for state lawmakers.

In a separate development, the court determined the order of Wednesday’s oral arguments in the case.

The group labeled Plaintiff-Intervenors or the Penn-Intervenors, who joined the case in 2005 with claims against the state and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, have been working alongside the original Leandro plaintiffs to push for more court-ordered education spending.

The vote was along party lines among the justices, with Democrat Associate Justices Robin Hudson, Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, Michael Morgan, and Anita Earls voting against dropping the Plaintiff-Intervenors’ brief. Chief Justice Paul Newby and Associate Justices Tamara Barringer and Phil Berger Jr., all Republicans, dissented from the decision.

Legislators requested earlier this month that Earls recuse herself from the Leandro case because she worked for the Plaintiff-Intervenors as their attorney in the case back in 2005. Earls denied the recusal request.

“Justice Earls held that, although she signed Plaintiff-Intervenors’ initial complaint, she did not need to recuse herself because ‘the facts and claims at issue in the Intervening Complaint — which largely concerned student assignment policies in CMS — are entirely unrelated to the questions presently before this Court,’” wrote legislative leaders’ attorney, Matthew Tilley, in his request for the Plaintiff-Intervenors’ dismissal. “In addition, Justice Earls introduced an August 2005 order from the trial court — which had not previously been made part of the record on appeal — that clarified that Plaintiff-Intervenors were only permitted to intervene for the limited purpose of pursuing their claim related to the conditions in CMS.”

On Wednesday the state’s high court hears oral arguments in the Leandro case, officially titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State. The case dates back to 1994 and a lawsuit filed by five county school systems against the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Education. The state Supreme Court already has produced major opinions in the case in 1997 and 2004.

In the current dispute, justices will decide whether a trial judge can order the state to spend an additional $785 million on education-related items. Those items are linked to a court-sanctioned plan, dubbed the comprehensive remedial plan. That plan stems from a multiyear, multibillion-dollar proposal developed for the trial court by San Francisco-based consultant WestEd.

The state Supreme Court will also decide whether a trial judge can bypass the General Assembly and force other state officials to transfer the $785 million to state agencies.

Tilley and attorney Robert Hunter, representing the state controller, will share the first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s oral arguments. N.C. Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar, representing state government’s executive branch, will take the next 30 minutes. Plaintiffs’ attorney Melanie Black Dubis will have another 30 minutes. Tilley, Hunter, and Majmundar can reserve some time for rebuttal after Dubis.

Note: this story was updated and corrected at 11:35am on Aug. 31 to reflect that the court denied a motion from lawmakers requesting to strike the brief from the Penn-Intervenors.