NC Supreme Court has second chance to uphold separation of powers in Leandro
Five months after its latest major ruling in North Carolina’s Leandro case, the N.C. Supreme Court is on track to consider the long-running education funding dispute again.
Perhaps this time the court will display a stronger regard for the constitutional separation of powers.
The trial judge overseeing Leandro signaled this month that he will await further instruction from the state’s highest court before moving forward with any additional action in his courtroom.
“This Court was directed to do three things,” Judge James Ammons wrote in a footnote to his April 14 Leandro order. “This Court has done the first, believes that it is prohibited from doing the second at this time, and stands ready to do the third if ordered to do so and given guidance as to the extent, if any, that the trial court should continue to monitor this case. The trial court shall await guidance as to how to proceed further.”
Ammons’ “three things” stemmed from the state Supreme Court’s Nov. 4 Leandro opinion. First, the court called on the trial judge to recalculate the amount of money not yet appropriated for items in a court-endorsed Leandro plan.
An earlier Leandro trial judge had calculated the state’s outstanding education funding obligation at $1.75 billion in November 2021. Ammons’ predecessor, Judge Michael Robinson, whittled that figure to $785 million in April 2022.
Now Ammons has set the total at $677 million. He essentially agreed with numbers Gov. Roy Cooper’s Office of State Budget and Management calculated last December. Ammons rejected proposals from Republican state legislative leaders that could have reduced the total to $376 million.
The second “thing” for Ammons to address involves the most controversy.
The November state Supreme Court directive called on Ammons to force state officials — Cooper’s budget director, along with the state controller and treasurer — to move money out of the state treasury to cover the recalculated Leandro obligation. Such a step would have bypassed the General Assembly, which holds the constitutional power to direct when and how to spend state taxpayers’ money.
Support for a forced money transfer divided the state Supreme Court. Four Democratic justices overruled three Republican colleagues to endorse the transfer.
But four days after the controversial ruling, voters replaced two high-court Democrats with Republicans. In March, after newly installed justices gave Republicans a 5-2 majority, the state Supreme Court reinstated an order from the N.C Court of Appeals blocking the forced money transfer. This is why Ammons indicated that he believed his court “is prohibited from doing the second [thing] at this time.”
The third directive to Ammons last November involved continued oversight of the Leandro case, which has been lingering in N.C. courtrooms since 1994. While Ammons “stands ready” to tackle oversight, it’s clear that he’s unsure how to proceed. It’s unlikely Ammons will take any further action without a new state Supreme Court order offering additional guidance.
Legislative leaders continue to object to any trial judge ordering the state to spend additional money on education — even the $376 million figure they had recommended to Ammons. Lawmakers argue that a judge has no authority to second-guess the political branches’ decisions about education spending levels.
The state Supreme Court has not supported lawmakers’ arguments. But the court has not ruled on the issue since Republicans secured their 5-2 majority. It’s possible justices could revisit that issue in the months ahead.
Of more consequence is the ultimate fate of the forced money transfer. As recently as December 2020, the state Supreme Court ruled, 6-1, that the General Assembly controls state government spending. “[T]he appropriations clause ‘states in language no man can misunderstand that the legislative power is supreme over the public purse,’” according to a case titled Cooper v. Berger.
Legislative control over spending stands as a key component of the government’s separation of powers. Neither judges nor executive branch leaders can dip their fingers into the treasury without legislative permission.
But the November state Supreme Court ruling ignored constitutional history — including the two-year-old Cooper v. Berger precedent — in endorsing the forced money transfer.
Only a complaint from State Controller Nels Roseland’s office has kept that legal issue active. Roseland’s predecessor secured the original Appeals Court order blocking the forced money transfer. Now, Roseland continues to question how he could take part in such a transfer without violating his oath of office and breaking state law.
The state’s highest court has not yet scheduled a review of the controller’s concerns. Once Leandro returns to the court’s calendar, justices will have a second chance to confirm their support for the separation of powers.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.