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Recurring issue echoes in fifth round of 30-year Leandro case

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(The Center Square) – One issue repeatedly came up during oral arguments Thursday in the school funding lawsuit before the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“Are any of the named plaintiffs actually public school students?” Justice Trey Allen asked attorneys representing both legislative leaders that appealed the spending order and the school districts and Department of Justice defending it. “Is that significant?”

While the parties seemed to agree the answer to the first question is “no,” they offered opposing perspectives on the second.

Oral arguments were heard in Hoke County Board of Education, et al. v State of North Carolina, a case commonly known as Leandro that began in 1994 and involved five low-wealth counties. The case has been litigated since, with the battle centered on school districts having enough money to provide a basic education.

Matthew Tilley, lawyer representing Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told the justices, “I think it may be significant when the case is remanded.”

“I think there may have to a be a decision whether those plaintiffs who have moved on from school now likely by 15-20 years are plaintiffs who could actually represent students who attend schools now, even in their home districts.”

Melanie Dubis, representing the plaintiffs, suggested, “It doesn’t matter because plaintiff school boards are proper parties and that has been the law of the case since 2004.”

Allen noted prior precedent in the case that found school boards “have no justiciable claims” and said justices “made it crystal clear … that the right to the opportunity for a sound basic education is one that students possess, and not school boards.”

“If there are no students left in the case, doesn’t that mean we have no parties left in the case that are entitled to relief?” he questioned.

Dubis said the court must “look beyond and broaden the issues of jurisdiction and standing.” She said, “The plaintiff school boards are affected by the rulings of this court and the trial court. They have standing.”

“One thing that’s awkward is your client is the government,” Justice Richard Dietz countered. “And it’s not just the government, it’s the very government that’s violating the children’s constitutional rights.”

The hearing is the fifth in the case – some involved, including justices, sometime refer to Leandro one, two, three, etc., to mark the timing – before the state’s highest court. In this round, legislative leaders challenge Superior Court Judge James Ammons’ April 2023 order that tasks the state in its annual budget to spend $677 million of taxpayers’ money to fulfill two years of an eight-year, $5 billion court-approved comprehensive remedial plan slated to run through 2028.

Lawmakers say only they have constitutional authority for appropriations.

“The case is about whether the trial court, when only presented with district-specific claims, had jurisdiction to issue a sweeping statewide orders that required the comprehensive remedial plan … which dictates virtually every aspect of education policy and funding, not just for the districts that were plaintiffs, but for all 115 school districts across the state, effectively removing those decisions from the … Democratic process,” Tilley said.

“Judge Ammons’ order … is only the latest in a series of decisions that caused the state to implement and impose” the comprehensive remedial plan, he said. “The trial court had no jurisdiction to issue those orders, and thus all of those orders should be overturned.”

Dubis said the court has already settled the legal issues raised by the defendants, and claimed defendants “invite this court to exceed the scope of its own order” by revisiting the case.

“It has been the rule of this court for over 100 years that the court will not disturb its prior holding in the same case, even if it would have overturned that holding on a properly presented petition for rehearing,” she said. “We do not have a properly presented petition for rehearing in this case, nevertheless that’s what legislative intervenors are blatantly asking this court to do.”

Ryan Park, a solicitor general for Attorney General Josh Stein’s Department of Justice, told justices he viewed the case as a means to “raise up the overall educational system and bring some measure of peace.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in November 2022 the trial court could order education spending to comply with the remedial plan. The makeup of the seven-member bench was different then from Thursday. Four justices were Democrats on that order; now there are five Republicans.

The court granted legislative leaders’ request for an appeal in October, noting issues of subject matter jurisdiction were left unresolved.

Justice Phil Berger Jr., son of one of the defendants by the same name, asked the full panel to decide on his recusal; four justices affirmed he should participate.

Justice Anita Earls, once a lawyer for one of the parties in the dispute, was asked to recuse herself but said she would not, nor ask her colleagues to decide as did Berger.

It’s unclear when justices will rule. The next date scheduled for issuing opinions is March 22.

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