As a growing number of North Carolinians are becoming aware, our state appears to be headed for a constitutional showdown. At issue: whether the General Assembly can be compelled by the state courts to abide by the state constitution and provide schoolchildren with the sound basic education to which they are entitled under the landmark Leandro Supreme Court ruling.
Superior Court David Lee has approved a plan that was agreed to by the plaintiffs and lawyers representing the state in the litigation that lays out a spending/action plan to put the state in compliance with the mandate. Unfortunately and remarkably, GOP leaders at the General Assembly reject the authority of the judiciary to tell them what to do.
Yesterday’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer does a good job of summarizing the situation — both where things stand and, more importantly, why the lawmakers’ stance is so destructive and unreasonable. As it notes:
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.
The defiance of legislators leaves a body to wonder just what other court directives regarding unconstitutional state action (or inaction) General Assembly leaders might be willing to ignore. After all, education isn’t the only area in which constitutional rights can necessitate additional state spending. What if the issue here was, say, prison overcrowding or access to public facilities for people with disabilities? Is it the position of legislative leaders that they can simply tell the courts of the state to go pound sand?
After exploring the takes of various constitutional experts on what might happen if lawmakers try to defy the courts, the editorial rightfully offers this assessment:
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.