Updated November 11, 2013: The Supreme Court of North Carolina in a per curiam opinion ruled on November 8, 2013 that legislative changes eliminating the artificial cap rendered the controversy moot. The decision was raised “ex mero motu” (i.e., on its own) by the Court. The Court vacated the N.C. Court of Appeals’ prior ruling, with further instruction to the N.C. Court of Appeals to vacate Judge Manning’s trial court order.
“Leandro” is more than just a name in North Carolina. The name represents a line of cases—stretching over the past two decades—that focus on precisely what children are entitled to in North Carolina: “a sound basic education.” The Leandro litigation has once again wound its way back to the Supreme Court of North Carolina . At the trial court-level in 2011, Judge Howard Manning, Jr. ruled that the State has a constitutional duty to provide pre-kindergarten services to all at-risk four-year-olds. Judge Manning’s ruling was subsequently affirmed by the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2012.
The Law Observer previously discussed the appellate issues in Leandro III, as well as the history of the Leandro litigation and what prompted this latest chapter in the ongoing legal battle. At the oral argument before the N.C. Supreme Court on October 15, 2013, Solicitor General John Maddrey argued for the State, Melanie Black Dubis of Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP argued for the School Districts, and former Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court James G. Exum, Jr. argued for the State Board of Education. Below is a summary of the issues receiving the bulk of the attention from the parties and from Justices of the Supreme Court. The record on appeal and briefs submitted to the court can be found here.
The current Leandro III litigation seems to be the natural continuation of decades of legal wrangling.
The School District opened by stating that Judge Manning’s ruling was not unprecedented but was rather a recognition of Leandro I and II. The State Board agreed and stated its view that the trial court ruling simply ordered the State to continue its implementation of the Pre-K program. When reading the line of cases in succession, one is inclined to agree with this position. The current Leandro III litigation seems to be the natural continuation of decades of legal wrangling: Leandro I set the stage, Leandro II set the remedy, and Leandro III came about because that remedy was not being properly implemented.
Justice Newby focused quite a bit on the fact that the program never has provided for every at-risk child in the state. The School District, however, quickly pointed out that rather than instantaneously providing for all eligible children, the program had always relied on a gradual application and expansion. The State countered this point in its rebuttal argument, arguing that the program was intended only to expand until 40,000 students were ensured access. Perhaps recognizing the importance of the State’s actions up to this point, Justice Edmunds questioned the State as to how much deference it should be given after failing to do what it said it would (i.e., implement the 2004 Action Plan).
The angle at which one approaches the funding issue likely determines the outcome of the current litigation.
The greatest amount of discussion focused on how to characterize the legislative funding plan (the “2004 Action Plan,” as it was frequently called) for pre-kindergarten programs that was propounded following the Leandro II decision in 2004. Is the funding a political decision of the executive and legislative branches that is given deference by the judiciary, or is the funding a legal remedy essentially amounting to a consent judgment order? The answer depends on how the question is approached, and the State Board viewed this as the key to the case: to what precisely did the State of North Carolina commit itself?
Relying on a separation of powers argument, the State began by positing that funding decisions should not even be an issue, that they are instead policy decisions of the political branches. The State referenced N.C. General Statute § 114-2.1 in support of its position that even if the 2004 Action Plan is a “consent judgment order,” the Action Plan simply was not perpetually binding. How the State rations its funds is certainly a decision that merits deference from the courts, and Justice Newby iterated that point multiple times in his questioning of counsel on both sides of the aisle.
The School District, while not disputing that budgeting issues are given deference by the court, argued that because the Plan is a remedy for a constitutional violation, the State must make the 2004 Action Plan work. The School District focused on the rationing of funds for pre-kindergarten programs being the result of a court order finding a violation of the state constitution. As the School District contended, the General Assembly cannot ignore a constitutional violation and wait to correct the violation whenever it wants.
An important line of questioning, continuing from what precisely the 2004 Action Plan is, focused on exactly how committed the State is to the 2004 Action Plan. Specifically, Justice Jackson questioned whether the 2004 Action Plan is binding on the State. The State contended multiple times that the goal was for the Action Plan to be statewide but that it was not binding. The School District, however, reiterated the point that the State’s proposed Action Plan in 2004 was precisely the remedy that was chosen by the State to address the Leandro II ruling. The argument follows that because the State chose to satisfy the court-ordered judgment with the 2004 Action Plan, it must follow through with its commitment to that chosen remedy. A failure to provide funding for pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk children is plainly not following through.
Should the case even be before the N.C. Supreme Court at all?
The issue of justiciability—whether the court has jurisdiction to even hear the case—was touched on briefly during oral argument. The initial legislative action that spurred the current litigation consisted of an artificial cap on funding for the Action Plan. That piece of legislation had since been eliminated by the General Assembly, and both Justices Martin and Edmunds questioned the parties as to whether the case was now moot. Both parties, however, argued that the case was not mooted by the legislative action. Importantly, the School District answered a similar question from Justice Newby by recognizing that the General Assembly easily could impose an artificial barrier once again.
Finally, an argument by the State, which seemed to carry the least weight, was that the trial court’s ruling applies only to Hoke County. The State contended that Judge Manning wrongly treated the litigation like a class action, where school districts across the state were essentially class members. The State’s position, however, is contrary to the history of the Leandro litigation. From the beginning, it was agreed to by both sides that Hoke County would serve as a representative district whereby the decision would apply to all low-wealth North Carolina school districts. In fact, as the School District pointed out, there were no objections to a statewide plan in twenty hearings over the past nine years. Perhaps the most persuasive point made was that 114 individual trials would be required if Hoke County was not a representative district. This would be undoubtedly an unworkable solution.
While attempting to read the tea leaves following an oral argument is likely a fool’s errand, it appears that at-risk four-year-olds in North Carolina will likely be much happier than the State when the Court’s ruling is announced in the coming months.