A state senator from Alamance County is criticizing North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls for deciding to participate in the latest stage of the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.
“Justice Earls has nothing to do with this case before the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican who serves on the Senate education committee and the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee. “It wasn’t enough for her to tell North Carolinians that their votes didn’t matter if the outcome didn’t align with their political preferences. Now, she thinks it’s OK for a lawyer who was involved in a case to act as to an appellate judge to provide an “impartial review” of the same case. Judge Earls cannot rule fairly and impartially, and his previous holding proves exactly that.”
Galey was responding to Earls’ decision, announced Friday, to deny a motion to recuse himself in the Leandro case. The same day, the state Supreme Court issued its 4-3 decision in NC NAACP v. Moore. The decision, written by Earls, will allow a trial judge to determine whether two voter-approved state constitutional amendments can be struck down. The amendments are designed to ensure photo identification for North Carolina voters and to lower the state’s income tax cap.
“His decision not to recuse himself came just hours after millions of legitimate votes were thrown away in a partisan ploy to deny North Carolinians their constitutional right to voter ID,” according to a press release of state Senate Republicans. “Now he is about to completely attack the separation of powers by siding with the same party he previously represented.”
Earls served as counsel for the intervening plaintiffs in the Leandro case in 2005. He later filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs.
“I conclude that no grounds exist to disqualify me from hearing and deciding the issues presented,” Earls wrote Friday.
“[T]The matter in which I appeared seventeen years ago as one of several attorneys representing the comptrollers was severed from the underlying case and is not at issue in this appeal,” he wrote.
“I filed an amicus brief on behalf of the civil rights organization I led a decade ago,” Earls added. “Just as it is not understood that the previous career of a jurist as a prosecutor undermines his ability to preside impartially in cases involving the State or defendants prosecuted for his position, it would be a disservice to the judiciary and to the people of North Carolina to conclude that My prior career as a civil rights attorney prevents me from acting impartially in cases involving civil rights issues.”
On the same day Earls denied Leandro’s recusal, Judge Phil Berger Jr. filed its own order explaining its decision to hear the case.
The Leandro case, officially titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State, dates back to 1994. The state Supreme Court has already issued major opinions on the case in 1997 and 2004.
In the current dispute, the justices will decide whether a trial judge can order the state to spend an additional $785 million on education-related items. These elements are linked to a court-sanctioned plan, called a comprehensive reparation plan. That plan stems from a multi-year, multi-million dollar proposal developed for the trial court by San Francisco-based consultant WestEd.
In addition to spending, the justices will decide whether a trial judge can bypass the General Assembly and order other state government officials to take the $785 million from the state treasury. Legislative leaders and the state comptroller’s office oppose the forced money transfer.
Oral arguments are scheduled for August 31. Berger, Earls and the remaining justices will issue a decision at a later date “to be chosen at the Court’s discretion,” according to a scheduling order.