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Leandro IV?  A Narrow Question with Wide Implications

If you have not heard of the Leandro case, actually titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina, you haven’t been paying close attention for the past 28 years. For a quick but thorough summary of the history and relevant facts of the case, see this article.

In brief, the N.C. Supreme Court held, in 1997, that the State of North Carolina had failed to provide to students in Hoke County and four other low-income counties an opportunity for a sound basic education in compliance with Article I, section 15 and Article IX, section 2 of the N.C. Constitution. It further set out the four hallmarks of a “sound basic education:”

  1. the ability to read, write and speak English, and sufficient knowledge of mathematics and physical science to enable the student to function in a complex society;
  2. sufficient knowledge of geography, history, and economic and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices;
  3. sufficient academic or vocational skills to enable the student to seek post-secondary or vocational training; and
  4. sufficient academic or vocational skills to enable the student to compete on an equal basis with others for obtaining further formal education or gainful employment.

This case has been up and down the appellate ladder, thrice finding its way to the N.C. Supreme Court. Back in the Superior Court after remand from the Supreme Court from its second appearance there, the plaintiffs and the state defendants, represented by the State Attorney General, entered a consent order. One of the terms of that order was that they would engage a third-party educational consultant for the purpose of crafting a remedy to bring the State into compliance with the N.C. Constitution, and to expand the scope of the remedy beyond the schools in Hoke County, ultimately encompassing the entire state.

There were some dramatic developments involved with the Consent Order. One was the expansion of the case to include the entire state education system. On a previous trip to the Superior Court, a different judge had narrowed the scope of the case to Hoke County only, reserving further proceedings for the remaining four counties. The other was the fact that the parties basically delegated the composition of the remedy to a third party. Of course, the unappealed rule of the case was that the State had indeed committed a constitutional violation. As a practical (and legal) matter, this meant the Superior Court could proceed toward a remedial phase.

The issue central to the most recent trip to the to the N.C. Supreme Court was the order by the Superior Court that compelled the State Controller to transfer “unappropriated funds” directly to the State Board of Education and other executive branch agencies. The funds were to pay for remedial actions recommended in the report by third-party consultant, known as the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, or CRP addressing the entire state education system.

The State Controller appealed the order on the basis that she could not make the transfer without specific authorization from the General Assembly. Thereafter, the N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with the State Controller, issuing a writ of prohibition preventing the forced transfer of funds until it could be determined whether the order for the forced transfer contravened the separation of powers doctrine. The matter was then appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court.

At the time the Superior Court issued its order, no State budget had yet been approved. The subsequently adopted budget provided a significant increase in funds for education. Therefore, in hearing the appeal from the N.C. Court of Appeals order, the N.C. Supreme Court ordered the case to be sent back to the Superior Court, with instructions to re-examine whether and how the newly adopted state budget might change the forced transfer order.

The Superior Court (with a newly appointed judge substituting for the judge who issued the forced transfer order) thereupon determined that the new budget addressed many of the items in the CRP and reduced the amount of funds to be transferred by nearly one billion dollars. More importantly, the new Superior Court judge struck the Order’s requirement for a forced transfer. The case then made its way back up the appellate chain, but this time the N.C. Supreme Court took the appeal directly, bypassing the Court of Appeals. Arguments in this most recent chapter were heard before the N.C. Supreme Court on August 31. To add to the drama, the General Assembly had been added as a party for these arguments.

Arguments before the N.C. Supreme Court addressed a cornucopia of constitutional and procedural issues. Perhaps most compelling, did the State’s failure for over 20 years to address the Supreme Court’s holding that the State had not met its constitutional obligations justify the extraordinary relief of a compelled transfer of funds? Does a judicially compelled transfer of state funds without benefit of legislative action violate the separation of powers doctrine? For a case which inherently brings the three branches of government into conflict, does the only constitutionally sound remedy reside in the ballot box? Secondarily, or procedurally, was it proper to expand the remedy from Hoke County to the entire state? Was adoption of the CRP without the Superior Court’s input as to alternative means of compliance with the constitutional obligation appropriate? Did this case become an unlawful advisory opinion when the State defendants decided to join the plaintiffs in remedy selection?

Unlike many cases, it is unlikely that a decision in this matter will be long in coming. Elections loom in November and two incumbent justices are on the ballot. The fact that the Court elected to bypass the Court of Appeals to take this case suggests that it wanted to hear and decide it with dispatch. Stay tuned and look forward to an answer to at least some of these questions by the end of the year . . . but your author might humbly suggest, you may have to wait until after November.


Ray Starling
NC Chamber Legal Institute