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Supreme Court to hear Leandro once again

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Editor’s Note: Updated March 24, 2022 at 5:18 p.m.

For the third time in nearly 30 years, the North Carolina Supreme Court will take up the Leandro case.

Monday night, the state’s highest court issued an order granting the request of the plaintiffs and defendants to have its justices take a look at the case.

Also Monday night, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Republican Paul Newby, reassigned the case from the current Judge David Lee to Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson. The news was first reported by The Carolina Journal earlier today.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals blocked the transfer of about $1.7 billion in late 2021 that had been ordered by Lee to help the state get in compliance with its constitutional obligation to public education. A three-judge panel ruled 2-1 that while Lee might be right to say the funds are needed, it is not within his power to order money be appropriated.

Lee’s order had directed the state budget director, controller, and treasurer to transfer from the unappropriated balance in the General Fund more than $1.5 billion to the state Department of Public Instruction, $189.8 million to the Department of Health and Human Services, and $41.3 million to the University of North Carolina System.

The Leandro case started in 1994 when families from five low-wealth counties sued the state, saying it was not meeting its obligation to educate all students equally. The State Supreme Court ultimately said that the state’s children have a fundamental right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that North Carolina had not lived up to that constitutional requirement. 

The state, as defendant, is represented by attorneys for state Attorney General Josh Stein. At this point, they have been essentially acting in concert with the plaintiffs while the case has been in Lee’s court, and both support Lee’s actions.

But North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, have argued that they aren’t a party to the case and pushed back against Lee’s order, saying that only lawmakers have the power to appropriate money. They finally asked to intervene in the case in December. Their attorney later asked the Supreme Court not to take the case.

According to the order Monday, before the Supreme Court hears the case, they want it to go back to the superior court “for no more than thirty days.” This is so the judge can see if the passage of the state budget should impact the initial decision to force the state to hand over $1.7 billion.

Lee had been waiting for the North Carolina General Assembly to pass a budget in hopes that they would fund the first two years of a comprehensive plan designed to get the state in line with its constitutional duties, but when the process began to drag on, he went ahead and ordered the money himself.

After the budget passed in November, the North Carolina Public School Forum put out an analysis that determined it funded about half of what the comprehensive plan called for.

“As soon as the trial court has certified to this Court any amended order that it chooses to enter, this Court will enter any such other and further orders governing the procedures to be followed in this case as it deems necessary,” the Supreme Court order Monday states.

Robinson already issued an order today calling on a conference with the attorneys in the case “for purposes of developing a schedule for further briefing and argument.” That meeting will take place Thursday.

Lee told WRAL Thursday that he did not ask to be removed from the Leandro case. Robinson is a Republican who ran for the North Carolina Supreme Court against Cheri Beasley in 2014 and lost.

Here is the order from the state Supreme Court.

Here is the link to the order reassigning the judge.

Here is the link to the order for the conference between attorneys and Judge Robinson.

You can see the orders reassigning the judge and calling for a conference on Thursday by going to the NC Business Court website here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on Public Access – Business Court Dockets. From there, enter the case number under “search selected view.” The number is 95CVS1158. Click on “dockets” on the right side of the screen.

For more history of the case, go here.

This article will be updated if there are new developments.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.