One N.C. Supreme Court justice’s interpretation of stare decisis could help determine the outcome in the latest stage of the long-running Leandro education funding dispute.
That justice, Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, offered clues recently about his assessment of the important legal doctrine. Ervin addressed stare decisis during a Sept. 9 Federalist Society election forum.
“Stare decisis,” in Latin, means “to stand by things decided.” In the legal world, the term means to follow precedent when deciding the outcome in new cases.
“As a common law jurisdiction, North Carolina adheres to the doctrine of stare decisis, and there’s very good reason for that,” said Ervin, while sitting next to the three other candidates for two seats on the state’s highest court. Ervin, a Democrat, is seeking a second eight-year term on the court. He faces Republican challenger Trey Allen in the November election.
“We have laws so that people will understand what conduct they can engage in without running afoul of the legal sanction,” Ervin said. “Therefore, if the law is unclear, then people are fundamentally uncertain about what they can or can’t do. Such uncertainty is inimical to the ability of people to live their lives, particularly in a complex society like ours.”
Ervin remembered comments from business leaders who appeared before him during his days on the N.C. Utilities Commission. “It didn’t matter so much what the decision was,” Ervin said. “What mattered was, first of all, that it was clear and, secondly, that it was applied consistently.”
The justice also recalled the written words of his grandfather, Sam Ervin Jr. The elder Ervin served on the state Supreme Court before earning national fame in the 1970s as a U.S. senator conducting Watergate hearings.
Ervin Jr. wrote the state high court’s decision in a 1949 case, State v. Ballance, that addressed stare decisis. If a court overruled a precedent, “he said that should be done only in very, very clear instances and only in the event that the court was convinced that it was wrong,” Ervin IV said during the Sept. 9 forum. “It also needed to take into consideration what would be the effect of a change in the law upon the rights, responsibilities, and obligations that people have to each other.”
“Stare decisis is really important,” Ervin IV concluded. “You need to adhere to it in all but the most unusual circumstances. If you decide that you are not going to follow a particular decision, you better have a really good reason for doing it.”
Ervin’s approach to stare decisis could help determine his assessment of the latest Leandro dispute. He could end up casting the case’s deciding vote.
Justices must decide whether a trial judge can order the state to spend hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars on education-related items, regardless of the budget approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.
At least as significant constitutionally, the state Supreme Court must decide whether a trial judge can bypass the legislature’s authority over state spending. In the latest Leandro dispute, a judge forced state officials to transfer money out of the state treasury to comply with a court spending order.
The forced money transfer appears to conflict with a 6-1 decision the state Supreme Court rendered in December 2020. In Cooper v. Berger, Ervin wrote for the court’s majority that the legislative branch maintains exclusive control over state government’s purse strings.
“The appropriations clause of the North Carolina State Constitution provides that ‘[n]o money shall be drawn from the State treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law,’” Ervin explained. “In light of this constitutional provision, ‘[t]he power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly.’”
As far back as 1776, “the framers sought to ensure that the people, through their elected representatives in the General Assembly, had full and exclusive control over the allocation of the state’s expenditures,” he added. “As a result, the appropriations clause ‘states in language no man can misunderstand that the legislative power is supreme over the public purse.’”
Leandro plaintiffs and lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department support the forced money transfer. They say the General Assembly has failed for too many years to meet its constitutional education spending obligations.
Questions during the Leandro case’s recent oral arguments suggest Ervin’s three Democratic Supreme Court colleagues are inclined to endorse the forced money transfer. Ervin could provide the critical fourth vote to make it happen.
Yet nothing about Ervin’s Cooper v. Berger decision suggests that the legislature’s “supreme,” “full and exclusive” control over allocation of tax dollars carries an expiration date. To rule in favor of Leandro plaintiffs would necessitate ignoring stare decisis.
Is Leandro a case of the “most unusual circumstances,” one that offers a “really good reason” for discarding precedent? We could learn soon, as Ervin casts his vote in the state’s high-profile education funding suit.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.