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Richmond County Board of Education v. Cowell

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

July 18, 2017

RICHMOND COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Plaintiff,
v.
JANET COWELL, NORTH CAROLINA STATE TREASURER, in her official capacity; LINDA COMBS, NORTH CAROLINA STATE CONTROLLER, in his official capacity; ANDREW HEATH, NORTH CAROLINA STATE BUDGET DIRECTOR, in his official capacity; FRANK PERRY, SECRETARY OF THE NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, in his official capacity; and ROY COOPER, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NORTH CAROLINA, in his official capacity, Defendants.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 7 June 2017.

         Appeal by defendants from order entered 1 November 2016 by Judge Donald W. Stephens in Wake County, No. 12 CVS 2414 Superior Court.

          George E. Crump, III, for plaintiff-appellee.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Thomas M. Woodward and Special Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar, for defendants-appellants.

          DIETZ, Judge.

         The State Treasurer, State Controller, and various other officials appeal from the trial court's order and writ of mandamus commanding them to pay money from the State treasury to satisfy a court judgment against the State.

         If this were any other case, we would summarily reverse. Under the Separation of Powers Clause in our State constitution, no court has the power to order the legislature to appropriate funds or to order the executive branch to pay out money that has not been appropriated.

         But this case is more complicated because it, too, arises under our State constitution. The Richmond County Board of Education brought a claim against the State alleging that fees collected for certain criminal offenses, and used to fund county jail programs, should have been given to the schools instead. The school board relied on Article IX, Section 7 of our State constitution, which provides that "all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State, shall belong to and remain in the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools."

         After a series of appeals to this Court, the school board ultimately prevailed on its constitutional claim. This Court ordered that all fees collected and sent to the jail program must be "paid back" to the clerks of superior court in the respective counties, to then be sent to the county schools. Richmond Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. Cowell, __ N.C.App. __, __, 776 S.E.2d 244, 249 (2015).

         That never happened-apparently because the Richmond County Board of Education never secured an injunction to stop the program while this case made its way through the courts, and now the money has been spent. Moreover, the General Assembly, to date, has not appropriated any new money to pay the Richmond County schools (or any other county schools) what they are owed.

         After time passed and the Richmond County schools never got paid, the school board returned to the trial court and secured the order and writ of mandamus on appeal here, which commands various state officials to immediately pay the judgment out of the State treasury or risk being thrown in jail.

         As explained below, we reverse the trial court's order. Under long-standing precedent from our Supreme Court, the judicial branch cannot order the State to pay new money from the treasury to satisfy this judgment. To be sure, if the school board had sought and obtained an injunction to stop the county jail program from using the money, courts might have the power to order the existing money returned. But that is not what happened here. The fees collected through the program are gone-spent to assist the counties in funding their local jails.

         Of course, this does not mean the Richmond County schools cannot get their money. As our Supreme Court explained in a similar case, having entered a money judgment against the State, the judiciary has "performed its function to the limit of its constitutional powers." Smith v. State, 289 N.C. 303, 321, 222 S.E.2d 412, 424 (1976). From here, satisfaction of that money judgment "will depend upon the manner in which the General Assembly discharges its constitutional duties." Id.

         Facts and ...


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