State government lawyers seek ‘expeditious’ schedule to resolve Leandro issues

N.C. Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar argues for the State Board of Education in a Leandro hearing. (Image from pool coverage)

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  • The N.C. Justice Department is seeking an "expeditious" schedule for the state Supreme Court to address outstanding issues in the Leandro education funding case.
  • The state's highest court reinstated an order blocking a trial judge from moving money from the state treasury without legislators' input.
  • State government lawyers offered a briefing schedule in the case that would extend no more than 52 days.

Lawyers with N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s Justice Department are urging the state Supreme Court to move quickly on its latest review of the long-running Leandro education funding case.

A document filed Friday asks the court to schedule no more than 52 days for new briefing in the case, with a new oral argument to be scheduled “promptly.”

Those requests are tied to the Justice Department’s opposition to the latest request from Republican legislative leaders. GOP lawmakers are asking the state’s highest court to review unresolved issues in the case.

Plaintiffs and intervenors in the case both filed paperwork Friday urging the high court to reject lawmakers’ request.

In Leandro’s latest major development, the state Supreme Court issued a March 3 order reinstating a lower court order that blocked a forced money transfer tied to Leandro.

A trial judge’s November 2021 order would have forced state government officials to transfer as much as $1.75 billion from the state treasury to address Leandro-related education funding items.

The N.C. Court of Appeals later issued a “writ of prohibition” blocking the forced transfer. A November order from the state Supreme Court put the Appeals Court writ on hold. The court’s four Democratic justices outvoted three Republican colleagues in making that decision. But four days after that order, voters replaced two Democratic Supreme Court justices with Republicans.

Now with a 5-2 Republican majority, the current court reinstated the Appeals Court writ. That means a Leandro trial judge would be unable to force government officials to move any taxpayer money from the treasury without approval from the General Assembly.

The March 3 order explained that the state Supreme Court planned to “address the remaining issues in the case.”

Friday’s N.C. Justice Department filing responded to the Supreme Court’s latest action.

“[B]ecause this Court’s March 3, 2023, Order reinstating the Writ of Prohibition further delays compliance with the North Carolina Constitution, the Court should act swiftly to resolve any outstanding appellate issues related to the writ,” wrote Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar. “To that end, the State respectfully requests that the Court identify any such issues and set an expeditious briefing and argument schedule.”

Justice Department lawyers argued that the November Supreme Court ruling already addressed the disputed Appeals Court order. “[T]he writ, which this Court already determined was legally erroneous, prevents the trial court from transferring the recalculated funds necessary to provide all children their constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound basic education,” Majmundar wrote.

The Leandro case has a new trial judge. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Ammons held his first hearing in the case Friday morning. Parties will return to Ammons’ courtroom March 17. At that time, he might render a decision about Leandro funding.

Leandro plaintiffs, Majmundar, and Democratic state government leaders want Ammons to determine how much additional money North Carolina should spend on education to comply with a court-endorsed Leandro plan. The most recent state government calculations suggest another $677 million would cover two years of the multiyear plan. The Leandro plan’s price tag eventually could total several billion dollars of recurring spending each year.

Advocates for Leandro spending also want Ammons to have the power to order the state budget director, controller, and treasurer to transfer the money to education agencies. That type of power would allow the judge to bypass the General Assembly.

Ammons could set a figure for Leandro spending without addressing the forced money transfer.

Majmundar urged the state Supreme Court to “set an expeditious briefing schedule on any issues that it believes warrant further attention.”

“Because the parties have already submitted extensive briefing in this litigation, and because any further briefing will relate exclusively to the writ, an extended briefing schedule is unnecessary,” he wrote.

Once the state Supreme Court responds to the latest request from legislative leaders, Majmundar’s proposed schedule set out no more than 52 days — roughly 7 1/2 weeks — for new court filings.

“Oral argument shall be scheduled promptly,” the Justice Department document recommended.

The state Supreme Court voted 5-2, along party lines, for the March 3 order. Republican justices supported the decision. Democrats dissented.

The Appeals Court’s writ of prohibition remains in effect until the state Supreme Court has a chance to consider arguments from State Controller Nels Roseland.

The March 3 order did not allow state legislative leaders to file new briefs related to unresolved Leandro issues. But lawmakers followed that ruling with another request that has yet to be resolved.

The Supreme Court majority explained its decision to reinstate the Appeals Court’s order blocking the forced money transfer.

“Specifically, the Controller argues that there are many issues presented in this case
that were left unaddressed in the Court’s earlier opinion” in November, according to the order signed by Justice Trey Allen. “The Controller further argues that ‘it would be fundamentally unfair for a court to subject him, his staff, and the recipient agency staff to criminal and civil liability before the basic elements of procedural due process were met including notice, an opportunity to respond, counsel, and the right to an appeal including a hearing on these issues.’”

Roseland has argued that complying with a forced money transfer could place him in legal jeopardy. State law and his oath of office prevent him from taking part in any transfer of taxpayers’ money with express authorization from the General Assembly.

The controller had requested that the court “dissolve or lift” its earlier order blocking the Appeals Court’s writ.

Roesland “has made a sufficient showing of substantial and irreparable harm should the stay remain in effect,” Allen wrote. “[W]e lift the stay, thereby reinstating the writ of prohibition, until this Court has an opportunity to address the remaining issues in this case.”

While the court accepted Roseland’s arguments, justices rejected requests from state lawmakers. Justices determined that state legislative leaders did not follow the “procedural requirement” of filing a motion to intervene in the portion of the Leandro case under discussion.

Shortly after the court issued its order, legislative leaders filed a new motion to intervene.

The majority’s order took up three pages. The decision prompted a nine-page dissent from Democratic Justice Anita Earls, joined by fellow Democrat Michael Morgan.

“I dissent from this Court’s extraordinary, unprincipled, and unprecedented action allowing the Controller’s motion in this matter,” Earls wrote. “Today’s order abandons the concepts of respect for precedent, law of the case, stare decisis, and the rule of law all in the name of preventing the State from complying with its constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education to the children of this state.”

The order blocking a forced money transfer touches on one of the key pieces of the Leandro case, which dates back to 1994.

Officially known as Hoke County Board of Education v. State, Leandro deals with the state’s constitutional obligation to provide N.C. public school students with access to a sound basic education. The state Supreme Court has issued major rulings in the case in 1997, 2004, and 2022.  

Editor’s note: This article is updated with information about a Leandro hearing before Judge James Ammons.