(The Center Square) – Parties in North Carolina’s decades-long Leandro school funding lawsuit have filed final briefs in the case ahead of oral arguments at the state Supreme Court scheduled for later this month.
Friday was the deadline for briefs in the case, which centers on whether a trial judge can order the state to spend $785 million to fund a Leandro school spending plan. Justices will also decide if a judge can order the money to be transferred from the state treasury without approval from the General Assembly.
“The central question before this Court is: when ongoing violations of fundamental constitutional rights have been established, does the judiciary have any authority — after 17 years — to order a remedy, or must it bow to legislative inaction and recalcitrance?” attorney Melanie Black Dubis, who represents the plaintiffs, argued in a 27-page final brief filed Friday.
Dubis contends Republicans in the General Assembly — intervenor defendants — are “mischaracterizing the legal posture of the case.”
“This is not a case about whether the legislative or executive branch has the ‘power of the purse,'” she wrote. “This case is about the role of the Court when the State is violating the fundamental constitutional rights of North Carolina’s children.
“After seventeen years, the time has come for this Court to tell the children if their constitutional right to the opportunity to receive a sound basic education in a public school actually means something, or if it is just a promise ‘made to the ear but intended to be broken in the heart.'”
North Carolina Senior Deputy Attorney Amar Majmundar and intervenors identified as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also submitted briefs asking justices to uphold the money transfer, alleging the move does not violate the constitution’s separation of powers and appropriations clauses, as lawmakers and the state controller have argued.
“Our Constitution also includes an entire education section, which further requires the General Assembly to raise revenue to pay for a uniform public school system and to devote additional state funds from court fees and civil penalties to public schools,” Majmundar wrote. “This Court has held that those provisions require the State, at a minimum, to provide all North Carolinians the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education.”
“The Court has made clear — in this case, as well as several others — that the judiciary has the authority to interpret rights and obligations due under the Constitution, and it can, indeed must, enforce constitutional rights when they are abridged — without interference from the legislature,” wrote Christopher Brook, with the lawyers’ committee.
Republican lawmakers represented by attorney Matthew Tilly countered in a reply brief that “plaintiffs ask this court to affirm a statewide remedy despite the absence of a valid finding – or even allegations – of a statewide violation.”
Tilly cited the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision known as Leandro II to argue education spending mandates apply only to Hoke County, not the entire state.
“Plaintiffs, Plaintiff-Intervenors, and the Executive Branch agencies represented by the Department of Justice (DOJ) simply refuse to accept that this Court’s decision in Leandro II limited the one-and-only ‘Liability Judgment’ entered after the one-and-only trial in this matter—and any mandates that flow from them—to just Hoke County,” Tilly wrote. “They also ignore that Leandro II upheld the trial court’s findings that the ‘bulk of the core’ of the State’s educational delivery system, including its ‘funding allocation systems,’ met constitutional standards.
“Instead, Plaintiffs and DOJ persistently try to recast both this Court’s decision in Leandro II and the trial court’s subsequent remedial proceedings to suggest that they somehow, at some unidentified point in time, resulted in a judgment establishing a statewide violation that might support the trial court’s imposition of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan (CRP) and its orders requiring the State to pay for it.”
Tilly noted that attorneys for the plaintiffs and intervenors supporting them do not agree on when or how that alleged judgment occurred.