Legislative leaders ask N.C. Supreme Court to drop one set of Leandro plaintiffs

Legislators seek Earls’ recusal from Leandro school funding case

N.C. legislative leaders are asking the N.C. Supreme Court to remove a group of plaintiffs from the latest stage of the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. The request arrived at the court in a motion filed Tuesday.

It would apply to a group labeled Plaintiff-Intervenors or the Penn-Intervenors. This group has been working alongside the original Leandro plaintiffs to push for more court-ordered education spending.

“Plaintiff-Intervenors’ claims are entirely unrelated to the issues involved in this appeal,” wrote attorney Matthew Tilley, representing top state lawmakers. “The current proceeding concerns trial court orders that directed the State to implement and fund a sweeping, eight-year ‘Comprehensive Remedial Plan’ (‘CRP’) that would rework much of the North Carolina public school system, among other things.”

“The trial court ordered the CRP to supposedly ‘remedy’ what it believed was a statewide failure to provide children with their constitutional right to a sound basic education,” Tilley added. “But, as has been made clear by papers recently added to the record on appeal, Plaintiff Intervenors were only granted a limited intervention in this matter to pursue claims related to the conditions in a specific subset of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district.”

Tilley cited state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls’ response to legislators’ request that she recuse herself from the Leandro case. Lawmakers had reminded the court that Earls worked for the Plaintiff-Intervenors at an earlier stage in the case.

Earls denied the recusal request Friday. She downplayed her role as attorney for the Plaintiff-Intervenors in 2005.

“Justice Earls held that, although she signed Plaintiff-Intervenors’ initial complaint, she did not need to recuse herself because ‘the facts and claims at issue in the Intervening Complaint — which largely concerned student assignment policies in CMS — are entirely unrelated to the questions presently before this Court,’” Tilley wrote. “In addition, Justice Earls introduced an August 2005 order from the trial court — which had not previously been made part of the record on appeal — that clarified that Plaintiff-Intervenors were only permitted to intervene for the limited purpose of pursuing their claim related to the conditions in CMS.”

“The order also made clear that the trial court severed Plaintiff-Intervenors’ claim from the underlying case as part of that order and has never reconsolidated Plaintiff-Intervenors’ claims with those of the Plaintiffs — which relate to the conditions in five rural school districts elsewhere in the State,” Tilley added.

“Put simply, Plaintiff-Intervenors’ claims are not at issue in this appeal,” Tilley concluded. “They therefore are not, and cannot be, ‘a party aggrieved,’ … nor can they claim that the orders below ‘affected a substantial right’ that would give them a right to appeal. … Likewise, the only claim they have asserted in this case was severed from the proceedings that led to the orders now on appeal. Their appeal should therefore be dismissed for lack of appellate jurisdiction.”

“Finally, allowing Plaintiff-Intervenors to participate as a ‘party’ to this appeal, even though it is entirely unrelated to their claim, risks the appearance that the Court is granting favorable treatment to one of the Justice’s former clients.”

The Leandro case, officially titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State, dates back to 1994. The state Supreme Court already has produced major opinions in the case in 1997 and 2004.

In the current dispute, justices will decide whether a trial judge can order the state to spend an additional $785 million on education-related items. Those items are linked to a court-sanctioned plan, dubbed the comprehensive remedial plan. That plan stems from a multiyear, multibillion-dollar proposal developed for the trial court by San Francisco-based consultant WestEd.

In addition to the spending, justices will decide whether a trial judge can bypass the General Assembly and order other state government officials to move the $785 million out of the state treasury. Legislative leaders and the state controller’s office object to the forced money transfer.

Oral arguments are scheduled Aug. 31. The state Supreme Court will render a decision at a later date “to be chosen in the Court’s discretion,” according to a scheduling order.

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