Justices will revisit Leandro, order for state to spend $677M

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(The Center Square) – North Carolina Supreme Court justices will decide whether the judicial branch has the authority to order hundreds of millions of dollars in education spending as part of the Leandro school funding legal saga.

Justices in the state’s highest court on Friday said they would take up a request from legislative leaders to bypass the Court of Appeals and revisit the case that originated in 1994. The issue involves an appeal of a trial court decision in April that ordered the state to spend $677 million as part of a court-ordered comprehensive remedial plan.

Lawmakers have consistently said the state constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate money.

Democratic Justice Anita Earls wrote in dissent to the Friday decision that an earlier ruling from the Supreme Court shortly before the November 2022 elections already found the judicial branch can order the spending. Earls’ dissent was backed by Justice Allison Riggs.

Earls and Riggs are registered Democrats, and the state’s high court had four of them at the time. It now has just two.

“This Court resolved the question of subject-matter jurisdiction in Leandro IV,” Earls wrote, referring to the earlier decision. “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.”

Voters shifted the political balance in the state Supreme Court in November to a 5-2 Republican majority, and lawmakers requested the court take up the case again in September.

Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote in a concurrence to the Friday decision, supported by Justices Richard Dietz and Trey Allen, that Earls’ “dissent is wrong.”

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

“However, in its rush to publish an opinion in the prior matter, the majority declined to address fundamental subject matter jurisdiction questions. 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.”

In the 1997 case Leandro v. the State of North Carolina, plaintiffs claimed poor school districts were not receiving the same educational resources as wealthy school districts. They argued the state was not doing what it took to ensure it met its constitutional obligation. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered a plan be drafted to meet the state’s requirement. The plan called for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028.

Litigation has been ongoing since the turn of the century.

Superior Court Judge David Lee entered a court order on Nov. 10, 2021, that directed North Carolina to use unallocated money to fund the first two years of a court-ordered action plan within 30 days. That order was blocked by the Court of Appeals, then reinstated by the state Supreme Court.

The makeup of the bench changed at last year’s midterm, with voters’ choices swinging the bench to a majority of Republicans. The court reinstated the order in March pending further legal action.

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