Plaintiffs urge N.C. Supreme Court again to move forward on Leandro

Judge Michael Robinson presiding in the Leandro case. Source: livestream

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  • Plaintiffs seeking $785 million in new state education spending are renewing their appeals to the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • A key issue in the case involves a judge's now-discarded order forcing state officials to transfer money out of the state treasury.

Advocates for hundreds of millions of new dollars in court-ordered N.C. education spending are renewing their appeals to the N.C. Supreme Court. Two filings Thursday urge the state’s highest court to take its next step in the long-running Leandro lawsuit.

Thursday marked one month since a trial judge returned the case to the Supreme Court. Justices have issued two minor orders in the case since then, but they have set no timetable for briefings and other activity to proceed.

At issue is the fate of $785 million ordered to fund education-related programs. That money is tied to a court-ordered comprehensive remedial plan designed to resolve the Leandro dispute. The $785 million would cover unfunded items from the remedial plan’s second and third years. Money would flow to two state departments and the University of North Carolina System.

Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson’s April 26 order amended a Nov. 10, 2021, order from a different judge, David Lee. Lee’s order had called for a $1.75 billion transfer of state funds to the two state agencies and university system. Robinson ruled that the state budget signed into law on Nov. 18, eight days after the earlier court order, covered nearly $1 billion of the items in Lee’s order.

While whittling down the size of the Nov. 10 order, Robinson also struck down a key provision that proved controversial. Lee would have forced the Office of State Budget and Management, state controller, and state treasurer to move money from the state treasury without authorization from the legislature.

Robinson’s April 26 order declared that the state owed $785 million to the two state agencies and UNC System, but the judge said nothing about how the money would reach those groups. He relied on a state Appeals Court ruling labeling Lee’s forced money transfer unconstitutional.

The April 26 order arrived little more than one month after Robinson took over the Leandro case. Dating back to 1994, the case has produced two major rulings — in 1997 and 2004 — from the state Supreme Court. That court had agreed in March to hear the case again. First, justices asked the trial judge to examine the impact of the new state budget on the $1.75 billion Nov. 10 order.

On the same day in March that the full Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee with Robinson.

Plaintiffs in the case now appeal Robinson’s ruling. They ask the Supreme Court to determine: “Whether the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction on remand to the extent the Certified Order strikes the portion of Judge Lee’s 10 November 2021 Order directing the transfer of funds needed to address underfunding of years 2 and 3 of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan?”

A brief from the plaintiffs also asks the Supreme Court to decide “whether the trial court acted outside the limited scope of this Court’s instructions” by eliminating Lee’s forced money transfer.

The Supreme Court already had agreed to address the court-ordered money transfer, based on appeals linked to a complaint from State Controller Linda Combs. Combs had secured a rare “writ of prohibition” from the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges blocked Lee’s ruling. They ruled the trial judge had no authority to force Combs to move money out of the state treasury.

A second group of advocates for the additional education spending, known as the “Penn-Intervenors,” filed a brief similar to the plaintiffs’ appeal.

Legislative defendants also appealed Robinson’s ruling Thursday. Lawmakers argue that the bipartisan state budget completely mooted Lee’s Nov. 10 order. They say Robinson should have ordered no additional state spending on education.

Last week, lawyers from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s state Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to pick up the pace of the Leandro hearing. Their brief asked the court to set a timetable that would allow parties to submit briefs through Aug. 12. Oral arguments would follow “at the court’s convenience.”