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David Lee, judge who oversaw school funding case, dies at 72

 Judge David Lee
Courtesy of Laura Lee
Judge David Lee died Oct. 4 at his Monroe home of complications from cancer.

A memorial service will be held this month for Judge David Lee, who presided for several years over a far-reaching North Carolina school funding case and ordered last year that taxpayer money be spent on student inequities.

Lee died Oct. 4 at his Monroe home of complications from cancer, according to an obituary posted online by Gordon Funeral Service & Crematory. The funeral home confirmed his death Monday.

Lee, a Superior Court judge, oversaw litigation called “Leandro” since late 2016. In March, Chief Justice Paul Newby assigned another judge to hear the next portion of the case. Lee had reached the mandatory retirement age for judges in January.

In November, Lee directed that $1.75 billion be moved from state coffers to government agencies to fund a remedial spending plan to help provide a constitutionally mandated “opportunity for a sound basic education” for at-risk children and those in poor regions.

The judge found that he had the authority to transfer taxpayer funds in part because the state — in particular the legislature — had failed repeatedly to comply with major court rulings stemming from the 1994 lawsuit.

A state Court of Appeals panel blocked the transfer, and Lee's successor in the case lowered the necessary amount to $785 million. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in August over whether the judiciary had the power to make such a unilateral spending decision. The justices have yet to rule.

Lee, a South Carolina native who grew up in Unionville, attended Western Carolina University and Wake Forest law school. He had been a longtime civil litigation attorney before first being appointed to the bench in 2003. He served as president of local Jaycees and Rotary Club groups.

Lee said last year that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer — a tumor had been found in his liver in 2019.

The memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 22 at First Baptist Church in Monroe, where he was a longtime member. Survivors include his wife, three children, and three grandchildren.

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