The state Supreme Court will take a fresh look soon at a nearly 30-year-old legal battle over education funding. Legislative leaders hope the court’s earliest rulings in the case can offer helpful guidance.
Lawmakers want the state’s highest court to reject a plan that could subject taxpayers to billions of dollars in additional spending without accountability at the ballot box. The court’s first assessments of the legal dispute point in that same direction.
“In its first two decisions in this case, this Court repeatedly warned the trial court to stay within the well-established boundaries that govern the exercise of judicial power. Those warnings have proved prescient,” according to a brief legislators filed on Nov. 9.
Known officially as Hoke County Board of Education v. State, the case started in 1994 under the name Leandro. Chief Justice Burley Mitchell wrote the state Supreme Court’s 1997 Leandro decision.
“In Leandro, Justice Mitchell, writing for a unanimous court, explained that ‘administration of the public schools of the state is best left to the legislative and executive branches of government,’” according to lawmakers’ brief. “For this reason, he held that ‘courts of this state must grant every reasonable deference to the legislative and executive branches’ and that only a ‘clear showing to the contrary’ will be sufficient ‘to justify a judicial intrusion into an area so clearly the province, initially at least, of the legislative and executive branches as the determination of what course of action will lead to a sound basic education.’”
Plaintiffs use the Leandro name when referring to other decisions from the past two decades. Legislative leaders disagree. They use “Hoke County,” since the case produced just one trial focusing on one local school system.
This fact proved crucial in the 2004 “Hoke County I” or “Leandro II” ruling. “[B]ecasuse Plaintiffs’ claims turn on the alleged conditions in their individual school districts, they only have standing to represent, at most, the students who live in those districts — not those that live anywhere else,” lawmakers contend.
“[T]he Court directed that further proceedings would be necessary to establish Plaintiffs’ claims with respect to any other district” than Hoke.
“The Court grounded those warnings and limitations not only in judicial restraint, but also the fundamental notion that Plaintiffs must first prove their claims and establish the violation of a constitutional right before they can invoke the courts’ remedial powers,” lawmakers argued.
“Yet, Plaintiffs — who have now found allies in the executive branch — have refused to live within the boundaries set by this Court,” the brief continued. “In the years since Hoke County I, they have persistently tried to recast that decision as one that establishes the existence of a statewide violation in order to push the court to grant ‘relief’ that exceeds the scope of the judgment they actually obtained.”
Republican legislators accuse plaintiffs of working since 2017 with Democratic “allies” in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and Attorney General Josh Stein’s legal shop to bypass the political process.
That scheming produced a “sweeping” plan “that would dictate educational policy and spending for the whole of North Carolina over a period of eight years. The breadth … cannot be overstated. It includes 146 action items that would dictate virtually every aspect of the State’s education program,” lawmakers warned. “It would also require billions in funding.”
“The implications of imposing the [plan] through judicial fiat likewise cannot be overstated,” the brief continued. “Our State Constitution explicitly recognizes that decisions regarding education policy and spending are left to the people, through their representatives in the General Assembly.”
Assigning education decisions to judges “prevents the people from deciding how best to administer and provide for the State’s educational system — even if they live in areas where no constitutional violation has ever been alleged,” lawmakers argued.
Yet the state Supreme Court’s own words can steer the case back into its proper lane. “Leandro and Hoke County I require that the Plaintiffs must establish the existence of a violation by clear and convincing evidence before they can invoke the court’s remedial powers,” lawmakers argued.
“[W]hile Leandro and Hoke County I establish the standard to determine whether the State has complied with its obligation to provide the opportunity to a sound basic education, they reject the judiciary’s ability to upend the role of the legislative and executive branches by answering the political question of how to provide the opportunity to a sound basic education by imposing a specific remedy impacting education policy, appropriations, and budget allocation,” lawmakers concluded.
Hewing closely to lines drawn by its 1997 and 2004 decisions could help the state Supreme Court shift responsibility for education decisions back where it belongs.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.