Plaintiffs, state government lawyers reject legislators’ Leandro arguments

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  • Lawyers representing five North Carolina school systems and state government's executive branch oppose top lawmakers' arguments in the long-running education court fight known as Leandro.
  • Four separate briefs filed Wednesday at the state Supreme Court challenged legislative leaders' actions in the case. The court will hold oral arguments on Feb. 22.
  • Plaintiffs in the case argued that legislative leaders "do not want to provide a remedy for the established constitutional violations" tied to the case that started in 1994.

Five local school systems and lawyers representing state government’s executive branch reject legal arguments from North Carolina’s legislative leaders in a 30-year-old court battle over education funding.

Four court filings Wednesday at the state Supreme Court took aim at state lawmakers’ arguments in the case commonly referred to as Leandro.

Oral arguments at the state’s highest court are scheduled Feb. 22. The court has agreed to consider whether a trial judge had “subject matter jurisdiction” to order hundreds of millions of dollars in new education spending without legislators’ input.

State Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, are considered “defendant-intervenors” in the case.

“After almost three decades of sitting on the sidelines, Defendant-Intervenors decided to intervene in this case and now inform Plaintiffs and the Court that they do not want to provide a remedy for the established constitutional violations, and they do not think that the court should be able to order them to do so,” wrote lawyers representing the Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance County school boards. Those school systems are the case’s plaintiffs.

“In 2022, this Court squarely rejected those arguments and found that the trial court did —  under the extraordinary facts of this case — have authority to order the State to carry out a statewide remedy for the ongoing violations of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” the plaintiffs’ brief continued.

“The question now before this Court, ‘did Judge [James] Ammons have subject matter Jurisdiction’ to determine the narrow issue that this Court instructed him to determine — is easy. The answer is, of course, ‘yes.’ This is because this very Court acknowledged that he did,” the plaintiffs argued.

Lawyers from the state Department of Justice also opposed legislative leaders’ arguments in the case.

“For decades now, the North Carolina General Assembly has stubbornly refused to adequately fund public education in this State,” according to the Justice Department’s brief. “Last year, this Court finally demanded that the State stop violating the state constitution. … But the General Assembly remains intransigent and would apparently choose endless litigation over simply providing the funding our schools so desperately need.”

“This Court should not countenance Legislative Intervenors’ latest attempt to shirk their constitutional responsibility,” Justice Department lawyers argued.

A third brief, filed by a second group of plaintiffs dubbed the “Penn-intervenors,” argued that lawmakers “have chosen to continue to ignore their constitutional obligations, favoring further delay by repeatedly relitigating issues already settled in this Court’s prior opinions and orders, rather than complying with them.”

A fourth brief, from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, accused legislators of using an appeal in this case to relitigate issues the state Supreme Court already has decided. “Their true aim, quite plainly, is to ask this Court to overturn its recent decision in Leandro IV,” the school system’s brief argued. “But that decision is the law of the case, and Legislative Intervenors waived their right to ask this Court to overturn it by failing to request rehearing in the manner allowed by the appellate rules.”

The state Supreme Court voted 5-2 in October to take another look at the case, officially known as Hoke County Board of Education v. State. The decision split the court along party lines. Republicans agreed to grant another review. Democrats dissented.

Three of the five Republican justices and the two Democrats even disagree about what to call the case. It’s known to most observers as “Leandro,” the name of the case’s original lead plaintiff in 1994. Yet Republican justices instead label the case “Hoke County.”

Republican justices refer to the state Supreme Court’s last major ruling in the case in November 2022 as “Hoke County III.” Democratic justices label the same ruling “Leandro IV.” In that decision, the court’s 4-3 Democratic majority called on a trial judge to update an earlier court order calling on the state to spend more money for education-related items.

Since that ruling, voters replaced two Democratic justices with Republicans. Republicans now hold a 5-2 state Supreme Court majority.

Legislative leaders asked the state’s highest court in September to take the case again, bypassing the state Court of Appeals. At issue in the legislators’ appeal is a trial judge’s decision in April ordering North Carolina to spend an additional $677 million. The money would cover items linked to a court-endorsed document called the comprehensive remedial plan. A Supreme Court order refers to the $677 million mandate as a “remedial order.”

Justice Anita Earls explained in a dissent why she and fellow Democratic Justice Allison Riggs would have rejected lawmakers’ request.

“Legislative-Intervenors’ bypass petition should be denied because it is substantively hollow and procedurally improper. This Court resolved the question of subject-matter jurisdiction in Leandro IV,” Earls wrote. “In that case — just 11 months old — the Legislative-Intervenors raised the same arguments they do in their bypass petition: That the trial court lacked jurisdiction to remedy constitutional deficiencies in public education. We examined that claim and ‘unequivocally rejected’ it.”

Earls rejected state lawmakers’ arguments that the case should focus only on Hoke County schools.

“Since the trial court found a statewide constitutional violation, we explained, it had subject-matter jurisdiction to order a statewide remedy,” she wrote. “But the Legisative-Intervenors ignored the trial court’s sound analysis and solid conclusion. They instead argued before us — as they do now in their petition — that ‘there has never been a finding’ of a constitutional violation ‘beyond Hoke County.’ We rebuffed that argument. And we went further, decrying it as ‘a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of this case and the State’s constitutional obligations.’”

“If parties can reopen a case by casting their disagreement in the language of ‘jurisdiction,’ then our courts will be nothing but revolving doors and our decisions nothing but paper tigers,” Earls wrote. “This case shows the danger of that approach.”

“We already grappled with and resolved the question of subject matter jurisdiction in this case — nothing imperils that decision or requires us to revisit it,” she added. “But by alchemizing its disagreement with Leandro IV into a ‘jurisdictional’ issue, the majority gives itself a tool to rewrite — and litigants to resist — our earlier decisions.”

A concurrence from Justice Phil Berger Jr., joined by fellow Republican Justices Richard Dietz and Trey Allen, answered Earls’ critique.

“The premise of the dissent is that this Court already ‘resolved the question of subject-matter jurisdiction in [Hoke County III].’ The dissent is wrong,” Berger wrote.

Berger noted Earls’ earlier work as a lawyer helping plaintiffs add the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to the long-running case. The legal dispute had started with five different school systems.

“Core to their rationale for intervention was that every public school district faces its own unique educational challenges and groups of students or school districts in one area of our state are ill-suited to address the educational deficiencies in others,” he wrote.

“This raises questions that our Court has not yet addressed: If public school students or local school boards who are not parties to this case believe the remedial order does not sufficiently address the educational failure in their districts, are they bound by the remedial order?” Berger added. “If so, how were their rights adjudicated without their presence in the suit — an elementary principle of jurisdictional law.”

Berger wrote that Earls and the previous Supreme Court majority “rushed to complete its earlier opinion in this incredibly complex, novel case (one that has spanned decades) so that it could be released in November of last year. The failure to resolve these jurisdictional questions is not the first oversight from this Court’s rush to judgment in Hoke County III.”

“My dissenting colleague laments that subject matter is now being addressed because it will cause various harms to judicial integrity and ‘snuff out legal finality,’” Berger said of Earls. “Once again, we endure ad nauseum these fanciful protestations. But it is black letter law that courts cannot ignore potential defects in subject matter jurisdiction.”

“Even if we again failed to address jurisdictional concerns, these issues could be raised later in a collateral attack on the trial court’s order, causing tremendous chaos if steps are already being taken to execute the novel relief in the remedial order,” Berger warned.

“in its rush to publish an opinion in the prior matter, the majority declined to address fundamental subject matter jurisdiction questions,” Berger concluded. “To be sure, these issues were raised, but the majority chose to ignore the bedrock legal principle that courts must examine jurisdiction to act. Even legal neophytes understand that subject matter jurisdiction can never be waived and can be raised at any time.”

“Because these crucial issues of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and must be addressed by this Court, it is a sound exercise of this Court’s constitutional role to take this case and permit the parties to brief the various issues.”

Both Berger and Earls face requests that they recuse themselves from the case’s next hearing.

Plaintiffs argue that Berger should step away from the case because his father, Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, helped request the latest state Supreme Court appeal. Meanwhile, legislative leaders argue that Earls should avoid the case because of her previous work representing parties in the case known today as “Penn-Intervenors.”

Neither Berger nor Earls has responded yet to the recusal requests. Court rules allow them to make a recusal decision themselves. They also can choose to turn the decision over to their colleagues for a vote.