(The Center Square) — A North Carolina trial court will determine the exact amount of what’s expected to be hundreds of millions in education spending ordered by the state Supreme Court on Friday in the decades-long Leandro school funding lawsuit.
“A quarter-century ago, this Court recognized that the North Carolina Constitution vests in all children of this state the right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education and that it is the constitutional duty of the State to uphold that right,” Justice Robin Hudson wrote in Friday’s order, citing the court’s initial Leandro decision in 1997, The Carolina Journal reports.
Hudson argued in the 4-3 party-line opinion that the state failed to meet that constitutional obligation, and “in response to decades of inaction by other branches of state government, the judiciary must act.”
“For twenty-five years, the judiciary has deferred to the executive and legislative branches to implement a comprehensive solution to this ongoing constitutional violation,” she wrote. “Today, that difference expires.”
“We remand the case to the trial court for the narrow purpose of recalculating the amount of funds to be transferred in light of the State’s 2022 Budget,” Hudson wrote. “Once those calculations have been made, instruct the trial court to order those State officials to transfer those funds to the specified State agencies.”
The opinion stems from a court order issued last fall by Judge David Lee that instructed state officials to spend $1.75 billion to fund two years of a court-ordered Leandro comprehensive remedial plan. Lee also ordered the state budget director, controller, and treasurer to transfer the money.
Controller Linda Combs objected to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and won a “writ of prohibition” against Lee’s order, which required her to transfer the money without permission from the General Assembly.
Republican lawmakers argued the transfer would violate the state constitution’s separation of powers, while the plaintiffs and North Carolina Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to step in. The high court took over the case in March and ordered a new judge to oversee the proceedings, Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson.
Robinson later reduced the order to $785 million after accounting for education spending included in the budget, and removed Lee’s forced money transfer citing the “writ of prohibition.”
The Supreme Court decision on Friday now blocks that Appeals Court order.
Dissenting Justice Phil Berger Jr. described the move as “the arbitrary usurpation of purely legislative power by four justices.”
“The majority affirms the trial court order which strips the General Assembly of its constitutional power to make education policy and provide for its funding,” he wrote. “The essence of this case is power — who has the power to craft educational policy and who has the authority to fund that policy.”
State House Democratic Leader Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham, applauded the Supreme Court ruling.
“For years, our state has not lived up to the constitutional requirement to fund a sound, basic education for our children,” he said in a prepared statement. “The Court found that after decades of inaction, now is the time for North Carolina to uphold our obligation to provide that education. It’s unfortunate that the Courts have had to compel the Legislature to do what we should have done a long time ago.”
North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell, who was included in the original court order requiring the education funding transfer, told the Carolina Journal “it is still a crime for the controller to write any check out of anything out of the treasury without the authorization of the General Assembly.
“That was true yesterday, it’s still true today, and it will be true tomorrow,” he said. “As the keeper of the public purse, I don’t pick and choose which laws to apply or who to apply them to, particularly in something as important as public education.”
Donald Bryson, president of the John Locke Foundation, said the “opinion reflects the continued partisan assault from this court, which has been rightly dubbed ‘The Usurper Four,’” The Carolina Journal reports.
“This cowardly timed ruling dishonors the constitutional separation of powers, and Justice Hudson’s move to issue a lame-duck decision for which there is no democratic oversight is telling,” he said. “Shamefully missing from this decision are a respect for democratic oversight and clear constitutional authority.”