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NC judge: No explanation for replacement in 'Leandro' case

a row of lockers inside a school at Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools.
Brian Batista
/
For WUNC
A row of lockers are open inside a school that is part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools system.

A retired judge who has managed longstanding litigation on K-12 education spending in North Carolina for years said he's received no direct explanation why he's not handling the next portion of the case.

Superior Court Judge David Lee has been overseeing the lawsuit called “Leandro” since late 2016. But this week state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby instead assigned special Superior Court Judge Mike Robinson to evaluate school spending in a new state budget law in light of Lee's November order directing $1.75 billion be moved from state coffers to government agencies.

Lee had ruled that the money had to fund a remedial spending plan through mid-2023 to help provide a constitutionally mandated “opportunity for a sound basic education” for at-risk children and those in poor regions. Republican legislative leaders said he had overstepped his powers by appropriating funds, which is a duty of the General Assembly. A state Court of Appeals later blocked the revenue transfer.

On Monday, the same day that it was revealed the state Supreme Court had agreed to fast-track appeals of the case, Newby issued an order telling Robinson to conduct the budget review and alter Lee's order, if necessary, within 30 days. Robinson held a video conference call with parties in the lawsuit Thursday to schedule collecting data deadlines and in-person arguments for April 13.

Graham Wilson, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Wednesday that Lee had reached the mandatory retirement age for judges, which is 72. Judges who reach that age, however, can continue to preside over cases, with a chief justice's approval. Wilson said he had no additional information when asked whether Lee's age was Newby's specific reason for the change.

Lee, from Union County, was named by then-Gov. Pat McCrory as an emergency Superior Court judge after he stepped down from his elected bench post in 2016. The day after his 72nd birthday in late January, Lee said he received a call from the court system stating that he was now a “recall” judge whose work would be at Newby's discretion.

Although Lee has received a commission to preside over at least one pending case, he felt that his future with the Leandro matter was uncertain until he saw Robinson's assignment.

“I’ve never gotten any formal notice or explanation,” Lee told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. Asked why he believes the change occurred, he added: “My guess on that is as good as yours.” But he said Newby is “perfectly at liberty” under the rules to do so.

Lee is a registered Democrat. Robinson and Newby are Republicans.

Lee, who had taken over managing the Leandro case after the retirement of Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, said he never expected to see this case through to completion. The lawsuit — named for one of the original plaintiffs — was filed in 1994. It led to landmark state Supreme Court decisions in both 1997 and 2004.

Lee, a longtime civil litigation attorney who was first appointed to the bench in 2003, acknowledged criticisms by GOP leaders. But he said it's always been his job to do what he thinks is right based on the law.

“I didn't intend to make this another career case,” Lee said. “The case is not about the judge. ... It should be about these parties and the attorneys for these parties.”

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