The N.C. Supreme Court surprised parties in several lawsuits Friday by snatching their cases away from the state Court of Appeals.
These include an appeal by environmentalists who want to block the sale of N.C. State University’s massive Hofmann Forest – a case in which the appellate court was believed to be close to a decision – and much-watched cases that involved coal ash pollution and school vouchers.
In all, the high court took five cases from the appellate court Friday in the rare exercise of power.
Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell said he believed that wave of special orders signaled that the state’s highest court was speeding up justice by taking on more, and more complex, cases.
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The Supreme Court has long been criticized for not taking enough cases while letting the appellate court become overburdened, Mitchell said. Current Chief Justice Mark Martin and others had campaigned on promises to boost the court’s workload, he said.
The cases they moved from the appeals court Friday were particularly complex civil matters. Expediting such cases is critical for the court’s central role of clarifying state law, Mitchell said, because criminal law is already more refined and straightforward.
“I think this should be greeted by lawyers and the public as a positive development,” he said. “It’s really a breath of fresh air, and I was really proud of the court – and relieved – when I heard about it.”
The other cases that the high court took from the appeals court involved:
• An appeal of a lower court ruling that struck down taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition
• An appeal by Duke Energy of a lower court decision to force it to stop groundwater contamination at its coal ash disposal sites
• An action in a case involving past and present tobacco farmers who are suing for money from a reserve fund held by a tobacco price stabilization organization
• Five cases consolidated into one that involves land owners in Brunswick County who contend that a developer, appraisers, banks and others involved in selling them lots at the height of the state’s overheated coastal land boom had acted improperly.
Mitchell and other legal observers might be elated, but lawyers and litigants in at least one case were caught off-guard.
‘It’s very unusual’
Raleigh attorney Jim Conner, who represents the environmentalists and foresters who are suing to try to block the sale of the 79,000-acre Hofmann Forest until there is a review of the potential environmental effects, said he had never heard of a case where the high court had stepped in before the appeals court.
“The only thing I can tell it means is that the Supreme Court recognizes that this is an important case,” Conner said. “I have never been aware of the court doing this before. I’m sure that they have, but I have never come across it before, and it’s very unusual.”
The news also surprised the state Attorney General’s Office, which is representing N.C. State University in the case, said spokeswoman Noelle Talley.
“We’re not quite sure why they did it, and we’re still trying to figure it out,” Talley said.
The forest is in Jones and Onslow counties, and has been used for decades by the university for timber sales and research. University leaders say it is used for little research now, and they want to sell to invest the proceeds for endowment income to help pay the costs of running the College of Natural Resources. They say it could yield $5.5 million a year.
The opponents counter that the sale could lead to irreparable environmental harm because some of the forest may be replaced with row crops and residential and commercial development. It’s important habitat for several animals, including black bears, and sits astride three sensitive watersheds.
A Wake Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit seeking to block the sale last fall, and the plaintiffs appealed that decision.
The land sale is expected to close in the next few weeks, and opponents had hoped for a decision before the deal was completed.
Conner said they are considering seeking a temporary block on the sale, since shifting the case to another court so late in the game could result in a decision coming too late.
Conner said he was hopeful that it was a good sign for his clients.
“I always have faith that our courts are going to decide cases well,” he said. “The Supreme Court is the final authority on what the law is in North Carolina, so to have our supreme court look at these very important issues is a good thing, I think.”