By Mitch Kokai
The N.C. Supreme Court is giving the new judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit another seven days to issue his ruling. The high court granted the judge’s request for additional time in an order Wednesday.
The Supreme Court order signed by Justice Phil Berger Jr. included no commentary about the decision.
Shortly after that order was issued, Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson announced a new Friday afternoon hearing in the case. The online hearing will focus on “disagreements over figures contained in the parties’ submissions to the Court.”
Robinson is tasked with determining how the current state budget affects a Nov. 10 court order calling for $1.75 billion in new education-related spending.
The judge specifically says lawyers in the case “should be prepared to explain the handling of overfunding.” Overfunding would have resulted if the state budget included more money for a program than the $1.75 billion order required.
Robinson had been scheduled to issue his final ruling in the case Wednesday. That day marked the end of a 30-day period the state Supreme Court had granted Robinson for a Leandro review. Once Robinson finalizes his ruling, the case will return to the state Supreme Court.
In seeking more time to complete the review, Robinson cited “the submission by the parties of a large number of position papers, affidavits, and documents including calculations and contentions by a number of the parties” about the budget’s impact on items within the $1.75 billion order.
“The parties are not in complete agreement on the amount of funding provided in the Budget Act for the programs,” Robinson wrote. “[T]here is also disagreement regarding how the Court should interpret certain appropriations made in the Budget Act as well as the proper treatment for federal grants available to the state.”
“In order to carefully consider the submissions and arguments of counsel for the parties and issue an appropriate order detailing its findings and conclusions, the undersigned is in need of, and therefore requests, an extension of seven days,” Robinson wrote.
With the additional time, Robinson must issue a ruling by April 27.
Carolina Journal reported Friday that the case’s plaintiffs, another set of education spending advocates called the “Penn-Intervenors,” and lawyers working for the N.C. Justice Department all reach the same basic conclusion. They want Robinson to scale back the initial order by nearly $1 billion.
They urge Robinson to order the transfer of almost $770 million from the state treasury to fund items included in a court-ordered Comprehensive Remedial Plan. That plan is designed to help resolve a state court battle over education funding that started in 1994. The state Supreme Court already has issued major rulings in the case in 1997 and 2004. The high court is expected to address the case again once Robinson concludes his work.
Standing against the other parties in the case, state legislative leaders argue Robinson should issue no order for new education spending. They say the state budget adopted on Nov. 18 essentially mooted the spending order from Robinson’s predecessor, Judge David Lee. Legislative leaders also argue that the budget offers more funding than the other parties acknowledge.
Outside of the arguments about the level of funding, State Controller Linda Combs offers Robinson a different request. She wants the court to avoid targeting her for any action. Combs says the initial Nov. 10 order placed her in the position of violating either a court order or state law. Lee’s order called on the controller, treasurer, and Office of State Budget and Management to transfer money from the treasury. State law forbids Combs from moving any money without authorization from the legislature, her attorney argued.
A complaint from Combs prompted the N.C. Court of Appeals to issue a rare “writ of prohibition” blocking Lee’s Nov. 10 order. An appeal of the Appeals Court’s ruling returned the case to the state Supreme Court.
The high court has agreed to hear the case, but only after the trial court completes a review comparing the original order and the state budget. On the same day Supreme Court justices ordered the initial 30-day review, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee with Robinson.
As of Wednesday, Robinson has had the case for 30 days. Lee had overseen the case since 2016.