Lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department are asking the state’s highest court to speed up its review of recent developments in a long-running school funding lawsuit.
A brief filed Friday at the N.C. Supreme Court asks justices to restart the clock for lawyers working on the case known as Leandro. The court has taken no action since April 26, when the case returned to the high court from a trial judge.
“[T]he State of North Carolina respectfully renews its motion for the Court to suspend the appellate rules as necessary to facilitate a prompt resolution,” opens the brief from Senior Deputy General Amar Majmundar, who works under state Attorney General Josh Stein.
The Supreme Court agreed on March 21 to hear the Leandro case again. But justices put their normal proceedings on hold for a month. They sent the case back to a trial judge. The Supreme Court called for the judge to determine the impact of the state budget on a $1.75 billion Leandro order for education-related spending.
Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson determined on April 26 that the budget covered almost $1 billion of the items in the original court order. Yet the state still owed $785 million to two state government departments and the University of North Carolina System. That money is tied to the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, a multiyear, multibillion-dollar court-ordered plan developed by San Francisco-based consultants.
Robinson’s $785 million order said nothing about how the money would reach the state agencies. He rejected a key piece of the original $1.75 billion order. Robinson’s predecessor, Judge David Lee, would have forced state officials to transfer money out of the state treasury without the General Assembly’s authorization.
It was that piece of the order that prompted a complaint from State Controller Linda Combs. She argued that state law prevents her from moving taxpayers’ money without permission from the General Assembly. The N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Combs’ request to block the $1.75 billion order. The Supreme Court had agreed in March to tackle the legal issues linked to Combs’ complaint.
Among the issues Majmundar hopes the Supreme Court will address: “Whether the trial court’s 26 April 2022 Amended Order falls within the scope of this Court’s 21 March 2022 Remand Order.”
Supreme Court rules allow for a suspension of normal timelines “[t]o prevent manifest injustice to a party, or to expedite decision in the public interest,” Majmundar wrote. “[B]oth this Court and the trial court have found that the State is not currently complying with this Court’s holding in Leandro I.” That 1997 decision guaranteed public school students’ right to access a “sound, basic education.”
“The CRP represents the efforts of the trial court to require the State to take the ‘necessary and appropriate actions [to] … provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to all children in North Carolina,’” Majmundar wrote. “The State, however, is already behind in implementing the Plan. The State has not fully funded Year 1, and has only partially funded Years 2 or 3 at all.”
“The funding for Year 3 must be released to the appropriate parties as soon as possible,” he added. “The State thus respectfully renews its request that this Court set an expedited schedule that will allow for a timely review of the trial court’s 26 April 2022 Amended Order.”
Majmundar recommends that the Supreme Court set a June 30 deadline for opening briefs in the dispute surrounding the $1.75 billion order and Robinson’s amended $785 million order. Final briefs would be due Aug. 12, with oral arguments to follow at “the Court’s convenience.”
The Supreme Court might not want to rush proceedings at this point, given the General Assembly’s budget timeline, said Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Lawmakers certainly will make budget adjustments that correspond to line items in the Comprehensive Remedial Plan,” Stoops said. “As such, it makes little sense for the Supreme Court to take any action before adjournment of the current legislative session.”