Superior Court Judge David Lee has set a mid-October deadline for state lawmakers to comply with rulings in the decades-long Leandro school funding case. Those rulings require the legislature to fund public schools at a level that will provide every student the opportunity to receive a “sound, basic education,” as required by the North Carolina Constitution.
In June Lee approved a ”comprehensive remedial plan” to reach appropriate funding levels by 2028. The plan was agreed to by the Leandro plaintiffs — five rural school districts — plus the State Board of Education and the governor. But Republican legislative leaders are balking, saying that the legislature controls the purse and that courts cannot dictate spending levels.
Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, put it bluntly: “If Judge Lee wants to help decide how to spend state dollars — a role that has been the exclusive domain of the legislative branch since the state’s founding — then Judge Lee should run for a seat in the House or Senate. That’s where the Constitution directs state budgeting decisions to be made, not by some county trial judge.”
What should be a matter of simple decency and wise investment — adequate support for the education of children, especially those in low-income areas — is poised to become a constitutional collision between two branches of state government. If the legislature won’t comply, the issue will likely end up before the state Supreme Court. The court, now with a 4-3 Democratic majority, likely will affirm Lee’s order.
Then what? Then apparently nothing, according to legal scholars. The court could hold the legislature in contempt attempt to levy fines, but it can’t ultimately compel the legislature to spend more than it wants, they told the Editorial Board.
Darrell A.H. Miller, a Duke law professor who teaches constitutional law, state and local government law and legal history, noted that courts can interpret the law, but are virtually powerless to impose it on another branch of government.
“Alexander Hamilton said the judicial branch doesn’t have the purse. It doesn’t have armies. It just has judgment,” Miller said. “What we hope is that people say, ‘The Constitution says this and I’m obligated to comply.’”
When a legislature refuses to accept the court’s authority, it’s an impasse, Miller said. He noted that Ohio had a similar drawn-out confrontation between the courts and the legislature over school funding and the Ohio Supreme Court eventually gave up on the issue. The legislature, he said, “just waited them out.”
But if the legislature rejects not only the remedy, but the judicial authority to impose it, he said, “You end up with a showdown and there’s not a clear answer about how that is going to be resolved.”
What’s particularly notable about this situation is the level of legislative defiance. There’s no need to confront the court like this. The remedial plan is well within the legislature’s capacity to comply.
The plan calls for the legislature to approve at least $5.6 billion in new education funding by 2028. The state has more than $6.5 billion in surplus funds in this year alone.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed two-year budget seeks to meet the plan’s initial cost, but budgets proposed by the House and Senate are well short. Legislative leaders are determined to hold that line, even as they propose more tax cuts.
A Republican-led legislature that has been quick to trim the powers of the governor and change the election of judges, now insists on the independence of the legislative branch. It’s another instance of Republican legislators who, rather than serving the law, expect the law to serve them, even at the expense of schoolchildren.
If Republican lawmakers defy Judge Lee, that should bring a verdict they can’t ignore from the court of public opinion.
Today’s editorial is from The Charlotte Observer. The views expressed are not necessarily those of this newspaper.