State Supreme Court should punt on Leandro case for now

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  • The N.C. Supreme Court no longer needs to address the constitutional fight over judges forcing money transfers within state government.
  • The court could send the case back to a trial judge and allow political actors to address the Leandro issue.

The N.C. Supreme Court has an opportunity to issue a third major ruling in the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. But justices should resist the urge to act now.

The court should step back instead. It should allow other participants in the decades-long Leandro dispute to respond to the latest trial court decision in the case.

Leandro started in 1994, when some of the state’s poorest school systems sued to get more money from N.C. taxpayers. The case already has reached the state’s highest court twice. In 1997 justices confirmed state government’s obligation to provide public school students with access to a “sound basic education.” A 2004 decision filled out details.

Neither ruling focused on dollars and cents. And for 12 years after the second Supreme Court decision, money played a minor role in recurring trial court hearings overseen by designated Leandro Judge Howard Manning.

The emphasis shifted back to funding only after Manning stepped away from the case in 2016. His successor, Judge David Lee, presided as parties in the case tried to reach an agreement that would resolve the dispute. They hired a San Francisco-based consulting firm. It developed a multiyear plan with a price tag of at least $5.6 billion.

Lee endorsed the plan. On Nov. 10, 2021, he issued an order requiring a transfer of $1.75 billion from the state treasury to three state agencies. That money would fund two years of items in the court-ordered plan.

That order generated the legal conflict that has bumped the case back to the state Supreme Court now.

The General Assembly never played an active role in decades of Leandro proceedings. Nor did state lawmakers offer any meaningful input to the $5.6 billion plan. That’s despite the fact that the state constitution grants the legislative branch control over the state’s purse strings.

Lee attempted to bypass lawmakers on Nov. 10. He directed his spending order toward the executive branch. One targeted official, State Controller Linda Combs, objected. She secured a rare “writ of prohibition” from the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges ruled that a judge could not force money to be moved from the state’s coffers without legislative authorization.

The state Supreme Court agreed to take up that issue. First, justices asked the trial court to compare items in the $1.75 billion order with the latest state budget. Gov. Roy Cooper had signed that bipartisan budget document eight days after Lee issued his order.

By the time the case returned to the trial court, Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson had replaced Lee. The new judge ruled on April 26 that the state budget covered more than half of the spending in Lee’s original order. Yet $785 million remained unfunded.

Robinson decreed that the $785 million belonged to the agencies designated in Lee’s order. But he made another major change to Lee’s order. It’s this change that should prompt the Supreme Court to consider punting on Leandro for now.

The new judge refused to order money transferred out of the state treasury to comply with the amended order. Robinson offered no guidance about how his order should be carried out.

The state Supreme Court could step in now to resolve that issue. Justices could rule that a judge has a right to force state government money transfers. Such a ruling would reject court precedent, upheld as recently as December 2020, that the legislative branch holds exclusive control over spending taxpayers’ money.

It’s also unclear whether such an unprecedented ruling from the Supreme Court would affect the Leandro case as it stands today. Robinson’s order — without the forced money transfer — replaced Lee’s order. Justices would have to engage in some degree of legal sleight of hand to revive Lee’s mandate for moving taxpayers’ money.

A simpler option presents itself. The Supreme Court could kick the case back to Robinson.

State lawmakers reconvene in Raleigh later this month. Cooper is likely to present legislators with recommended budget revisions. The General Assembly can accept or reject the governor’s recommendations in the normal state budget process.

This interaction will represent the first opportunity for political actors to respond since Robinson issued his ruling. Parties in the Leandro case, and justices sitting on the state’s highest court, could wait to see whether any of the $785 million in Robinson’s order ends up funded through the normal budget process.

If not, those who seek more funding could return to Robinson’s courtroom seeking a remedy. If they don’t like the judge’s ruling, the case could head back to the Supreme Court.

Then justices would be in a better position to offer their latest pronouncement on a case that has taken numerous twists and turns for 28 years.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

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