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Leandro case back before justices on Thursday

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(The Center Square) – Whether courts can order hundreds of millions in educational spending will be revisited Thursday in North Carolina’s Supreme Court.

The case is commonly known as Leandro, and began three decades ago.

Legislative leaders are challenging an April 2023 order from Superior Court Judge James Ammons that calls for the state to spend $677 million to fulfill two years of an eight-year, $5 billion court approved comprehensive remedial plan slated to run through 2028.

Named after an original plaintiff from 1994, justices sided with plaintiffs in the case in 1997 and 2004, ruling the state constitution requires a “sound basic education.” The state Supreme Court in November 2022 ruled a trial judge could order state executives to transfer the funding.

The state’s highest court granted an appeal in October to revisit the decision and consider whether previous rulings apply to all schools or only parties to the litigation.

The difference in the court’s composition changed between those latest two rulings. Democrats had four seats, Republicans now have five of the seven.

“In sum, the Legislative-Intervenors argued various jurisdictional theories in their briefs and arguments to this Court that were left unresolved,” Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote in the October order. “This court is dutybound to address any potential subject matter jurisdiction issues, even those that are not raised by the parties.”

Plaintiffs, justices who are Democrats, Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, and civil rights groups have argued the court did address those issues in prior rulings, and have advocated against revisiting the case.

Justice Anita Earls, who previously participated in the case as an attorney for one set of plaintiffs, dissented to the October order, saying that by revisiting the case “our courts will be nothing but revolving doors and our decisions nothing but paper tigers.”

Earls declined to recuse herself from the case. Berger, son of Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, submitted a request for his recusal to his colleagues on Supreme Court to consider. On Friday, four of the six colleagues said yes to his participation.

Legislative leaders contend several trial court orders in the case “all exceed the court’s jurisdiction,” citing constitutional provisions that give sole approval over spending to the General Assembly.

Lawyers for the lawmakers said the entire series of orders, starting with Judge David Lee’s 2018 ruling requiring development of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, “should be overturned for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

Oral arguments are scheduled to begin at 10:45 a.m.

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