Your July 25 editorial “No victory in N.C. voucher ruling” was an unwarranted criticism of the N.C. Supreme Court majority who upheld the Opportunity Scholarship program. You argued, “[T]he high court’s taking of the case was a sign Republican justices were going to support the agenda of Republican lawmakers. And that’s what happened.”
Your claim is an unfair attack, levied against judges who have the courage, professionalism and conviction to apply the law as written. The court should be lauded, not criticized, for expediting a case of urgent public importance. More than 4,000 poor and underserved children had been approved for the scholarships and were awaiting a decision. The Supreme Court would ultimately be required to decide the case, regardless of how it came out below. It did the right thing in deciding to act now rather than later.
Moreover, the court did not single out the Opportunity Scholarship Program on any partisan basis. On the same day it decided to take the case, it also decided to expedite the review of other cases involving an environmental group’s effort to stop a land sale by N.C. State University, Duke Energy’s coal ash and pollution dispute, claims by tobacco farmers concerning price stabilization funds and claims involving land purchases in Brunswick County. None of these cases had anything to do with “the agenda of Republican lawmakers.”
Indeed, when the court pulled up all five cases, your paper quoted former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell (a Democrat!) praising the court’s actions, saying: “I think this should be greeted by lawyers and the public as a positive development. ... It’s really a breath of fresh air, and I was really proud of the court – and relieved – when I heard about it.”
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Mitchell went on to say he “believed that ... [the decision to take the cases] signaled that the state’s highest court was speeding up justice by taking on more ... complex cases” and noted that it had previously “been criticized for not taking enough cases while letting the appellate court become overburdened.”
Your editorial concludes by saying, “It is a sorry and sad day when a Supreme Court majority showing its partisan colors offers aid and comfort to legislators with chips on their shoulders about public education and driven by a hard-right ideology that trumps good sense.” In fact, similar scholarship programs have consistently been upheld by appellate courts throughout our country – including the U.S. Supreme Court and courts in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. In all of those cases, the courts affirmed the simple principle that the people and their elected representatives – not judges – should decide education policy. In doing so, our Supreme Court rightly decided that plaintiffs’ challenges to the Opportunity Scholarship Program were without merit.
Even after losing, the plaintiffs continue to insist that allowing students choices in addition to traditional public schools somehow violates the State Constitution’s requirement that there must be, at minimum, a “general and uniform system of public schools.” However, our courts have long held that the legislature can establish other school programs in addition to the general and uniform system. So long as students who receive vouchers have the option of going to traditional schools, the North Carolina Constitution does not prevent our legislature from giving them additional choices. I believe the state Supreme Court made the correct legal decision in this case. More importantly, though, I believe the justices who joined the majority did so based on the integrity of their legal reasoning.
As Chief Justice Mark Martin noted in his opinion, “[T]he wisdom of the legislation is a question for the General Assembly,” and not the court. The court rightly left that decision to the political process. We should not now attack them for doing so – and we certainly should not attack them for trying to follow the law.
The writer, a lawyer, is a former Republican mayor of Charlotte and candidate for N.C. governor.