An Alamance County state senator is criticizing NC Superior Court Judge Anita Earls for deciding to sit in on the latest phase of the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit.
“Justice Earls has no business hearing 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 don’t matter if the outcome doesn’t match her political preferences. Now, she thinks it’s okay for a lawyer who has participated in a case to serve as an appellate judge, providing ‘impartial review’ of the same case. Justice Earls cannot rule fairly and impartially, and her previous involvement shows just that.”
Galey responded to Earls’ decision, announced Friday, to deny a motion to recuse herself in the Leandro case. That same day, the state Supreme Court released its 4-3 decision in NC NAACP v. Moore. The ruling, authored by Earls, will allow a judge to determine whether two state constitutional amendments approved by voters can be overturned. The changes are designed to guarantee photo identification for voters in North Carolina and lower the state’s income tax threshold.
“Her decision not to recuse herself came just hours after she cast millions of legitimate votes in a partisan ploy to deny North Carolinians their constitutional right to voter ID,” according to a press release press from state Senate Republicans. “Now she is on the precipice of completely ditching the separation of powers by siding with the same party she once represented.”
Earls served as counsel for the intervening plaintiffs in the Leandro case in 2005. She later filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of the plaintiffs.
“I have concluded that there are no grounds for me to disqualify myself from hearing and deciding the issues presented,” Earls wrote Friday.
“[T]the case in which I appeared seventeen years ago as one of several attorneys representing the intervenors was severed from the underlying case and is not at issue in this appeal,” she wrote.
“I filed an amicus brief on behalf of the civil rights organization I ran a decade ago,” Earls added. “Just as a lawyer’s prior career as a prosecutor is not understood to undermine their ability to impartially preside over cases involving the state or defendants prosecuted by their office, it would be a disservice to the judiciary and to the people of North Carolina to conclude that my previous career as a civil rights attorney prevents me from acting impartially in matters involving civil rights issues.”
On the same day that Earls denied the exception in Leandro, Judge Phil Berger Jr. filed his order explaining his decision to hear the case.
The Leandro case, formally titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State, dates back to 1994. The state Supreme Court has already issued major opinions on the issue in 1997 and 2004.
In the current dispute, the justices will decide whether a judge can order the state to spend an additional $785 million on education-related items. These items are tied to a court-sanctioned plan called a comprehensive remedial plan. That plan stems from a multiyear, multibillion-dollar proposal developed for the court by San Francisco-based consultant WestEd.
In addition to costs, the justices will decide whether a trial judge can override the General Assembly and order other state government officials to remove the $785 million from the state treasury. Legislative leaders and the state comptroller’s office oppose forced cash transfers.
Oral arguments are set for August 31. Berger, Earls and the rest of the justices will make a decision at a later date “to be determined in the discretion of the Court,” according to a scheduling order.