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NC Supreme Court Justice Phil Berger Jr. Won’t Recuse Himself from Leandro Case Despite His Father’s Involvement

Source: WRAL

In an entirely predictable decision, North Carolina’s right-wing controlled Supreme Court has ruled that Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr. does not need to recuse himself from a major, long-running education lawsuit even though his father, Republican N.C. Senate President Phil Berger Sr. is taking part in the case.

Berger Sr. is an intervenor (a third party not named in the lawsuit who is joining the case anyway) in the 30-year-old lawsuit, Hoke County Board of Education v. State of North Carolina, better known as the Leandro case.

Potentially billions of dollars for public schools are on the line now that the lawsuit is once again before the state Supreme Court. In November 2022, when the high court had a 4-3 Democratic majority, justices ruled that hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent on public schools as outlined in the Leandro Plan. The court now has a 5-2 Republican majority.

Berger Jr. was on the losing end of that decision, but he and his father may end up getting the last laugh because the implementation of that order never even began due to Republicans in the legislature continuously filing petitions to prevent public schools from getting the money owed to them.

The lawsuit, which was first filed in 1994, argues that North Carolina’s public schools are not receiving sufficient resources – whether through policy, funding or other means. Over the past three decades, the case has moved through the court system, and ruling after ruling has determined that schools are not receiving adequate resources and that the state needs to fix it. Republican lawmakers, though, have argued over and over that court rulings shouldn’t apply statewide.

Justices heard arguments about jurisdictional questions in the case on Feb. 22.

How the court decides the case “could determine the fate of a larger, more than $5 billion plan to comply with court findings through 2028,” WRAL reported.

The plaintiffs in the case, which include families and school boards in five lower-income counties, had requested that Berger Jr. recuse himself from the case due to his father being an intervenor.

Republican Justice Trey Allen wrote in an opinion issued earlier this month that the plaintiffs’ request “offers no new grounds” after a similar request was rejected in 2022. Allen wrote that since the petition didn’t raise new questions, it was impermissible in court.

Associate Justice Allison Riggs and Associate Justice Anita Earls, both Democrats, dissented.

In her dissent, Riggs cited the North Carolina Judicial Code of Conduct, which says that judges should recuse themselves when a family member is involved in the case – the exact situation Berger Jr. finds himself in.

According to WRAL, part of the dispute in front of the court now is over the extent to which justices are being asked to re-hear and re-rule on matters already decided in 2022.

Since Republicans took over the majority on the court in January 2023, they have re-heard cases decided by the previous Supreme Court just months prior. In March 2023, the court broke with 205 years of state judicial history when they decided to re-hear two voting rights cases, Harper v. Hall and Holmes v. Moore. Those decisions – made in late 2022 – overturned unconstitutional state Senate maps and the state’s unconstitutional voter ID law, respectively. The current state Supreme Court re-heard and re-ruled on those cases, overturning the previous rulings, meaning that North Carolina once again has racially gerrymandered Senate maps, and voters are now required to show ID to vote.


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