On October 20, the North Carolina Supreme Court granted a petition for a discretionary review of whether the court had subject matter jurisdiction of Leandro v. State, a major adequacy case that has been litigated extensively for the past 30 years. This review could result in vacating the entire case.The petition was filed by the Republican legislative leaders. The justices’ vote on the order was split along party lines, with five Republicans voting in favor and two Democrats voting against it.
In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued its initial Leandro ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every student has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources. After years of hearings, remedial orders and appellate review, the trial court in 2021 issued an order approving a comprehensive eight-part remedial plan submitted jointly by the plaintiffs and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. The plan aimed to provide all students in the state a sound basic education by 2028, and had an estimated $5.6 billion price tag. A summary of the plan is available here.
In 2022, in a 4-3 decision, the state supreme court ordered the state controller and other state officials to transfer approximately $800 million from state budget reserves to the state educational budgets to fund years 2 and 3 of the comprehensive compliance plan; it remanded the case to the trial court to recalculate the exact amount of funds required for the transfer and ordered that the trial court to retain jurisdiction to ensure that the plan is fully implemented in the years to come. Two of the justices who were part of the majority that issued that order were subsequently defeated in last year’s election and two new justices were elected to the Court.
In concurring with last month’s order that calls for a basic review of subject matter jurisdiction that could potentially lead to vacating the entire case and eliminating the requirement for the state to fund the comprehensive plan, three of the Justices wrote:
Because these crucial issues of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and must be addressed by this Court, it is a sound exercise of this Court’s constitutional role to take this case and permit the parties to brief the various issues including standing, joinder of necessary parties, adverseness, intervention, and jurisdiction of the trial court to provide the requested relief, all of which are necessary jurisdictional prerequisites to execution of the trial court’s remedial order.
In response, the two dissenting Justices wrote a strongly worded opinion stating, among other things, that:
If parties can reopen a case by casting their disagreement in the language of “jurisdiction,” then our courts will be nothing but revolving doors and our decisions nothing but paper tigers. …..In substance, “[n]othing has changed” since Leandro IV: The “legal issues are the same; the evidence is the same; and the controlling law is the same.”
When our decisions shift with the political headwinds, it “invite[s] the view that this institution is little different from the two political branches of the Government.” See Dobbs, 142 S. Ct. at 2350 (Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., dissenting) …… And when this Court rapidly reverses course on that topic, it “calls into question its commitment to legal principle.” Id. It signals to North Carolinians “that their constitutional protections h[a]ng by a thread”—that “a new majority” can “by dint of numbers alone expunge their rights.” Id. at 2350. It poisons the public’s faith in us…..
No court date has been set for the Court to review the case.
Late last month, the Maryland Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction of plaintiffs’ appeal of the dismissal of the long-pending Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education case and remanded the matter to the state court of appeals. The Supreme Court’s decision was procedural and the Court did not issue any ruling on the merits of the case.
Bradford was originally filed in 1994. The plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, that the state was underfunding Baltimore’s schools in violation of Maryland’s Education Article, which guarantees students a “thorough and efficient” education.
In 1996, the trial court granted partial summary judgment for the plaintiffs, ruling that “the public school children in Baltimore City are not being provided with an education that is adequate when measured by contemporary educational standards.” Before trial, the parties entered into a consent decree, which provided for over $200 million in additional funds for Baltimore’s schools to be provided through Fiscal Year 2002. The court retained jurisdiction to ensure compliance with the consent decree and the Maryland Constitution.
On three occasions after entry of the consent decree – in 2000, 2002 and 2004 – the trial court found the State had not fulfilled its constitutional obligation. In 2019, the Bradford plaintiffs filed a petition that asked the Circuit Court for Baltimore Country to revive the 25 year old law suit, order the state to provide $290 million in immediate funding increases and develop a comprehensive plan to ensure that all Baltimore City students receive a “thorough and efficient education.”
In January 2020, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Aubrey J.S. Carrion denied the state’s motion to dismiss Bradford. Although the case had been dormant for 15 years, Carrion held that the Court still retained jurisdiction via the terms of the original consent judgment. But in March, 2023, in response to cross summary judgment motions, Judge Carrion granted the state’s motion and denied the plaintiffs’.
In her latest decision, the court ruled, inter alia, that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of Maryland’s Education Article—that all Maryland students are entitled to an “adequate education by contemporary educational standards”—is erroneous. She agreed with the State’s position that the 1983 Court of Appeals ruling in Hornbeck v. Somerset County Bd. of Education only requires a “basic” education, and that Baltimore students were receiving a basic education. In addition, the Court held that education adequacy was a “political question” left exclusively for legislative decision-making with no judicial oversight.
The Court’s decision did not review the numerous state court decisions throughout the country that have been decided over the past 40 years and that have rejected the “political question” doctrine and have held that a “thorough and efficient” education requires more than “a “basic” education, a term that the Maryland circuit court applied but did not define.
Since 2010, the Kansas Supreme Court has issued seven separate decisions in Gannon v. State of Kansas, requiring the State to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. In its last decision in 2019, the Court held that the State’s funding commitments would at last meet constitutional requirements, but it retained jurisdiction at least through 2023 to ensure that all of the promised funds would, in fact, be paid out.
In October, Kansas’ Republican Attorney General Kris Kobach asked the Kansas Supreme Court to terminate its jurisdiction of the case. “The phased-in remedy has been completed,” Kobach said. “It’s normal to close a case at this time.”
Most democrats, including Gov. Laura Kelly have opposed Kobach’s request. Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said there was substantial risk to the Supreme Court releasing its grip on Gannon. He said the Legislature had a record of eroding compliance with constitutional provisions on funding K-12 schools.
“The Kansas Supreme Court is well familiar with the practice of the Legislature to comply with its orders only for the shortest time necessary,” Carmichael said. “If you look historically, that’s why we had the Gannon case filed. The Legislature, as soon as they were out from under supervision of the courts, immediately reduced school funding.”