Wait continues in CCCC trustee case

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Despite rumors to the contrary, no major updates have come for several months in the lawsuit between four Central Carolina Community College trustees and the state.

C. Winston Gilchrist, the superior court judge overseeing the case, did file several orders recently. But one was to rescind a previous order to seek mediation after both sides agreed it would be pointless, and the other was the formal written version of an opinion he gave orally in August.

That opinion, which The Herald reported on at the time, was a preliminary injunction stating that the four trustees, despite being removed from office by a new state law, could remain on the board at least while their case is being heard.

Both sides are still waiting for a much bigger update — Gilchrist’s opinion regarding motions they filed to have the other side’s arguments thrown out and which are known, in legal parlance, as motions for summary judgment.

John Silverman, the attorney for plaintiffs Chet Mann, Jan Hayes, Tony Lett and Norman “Chip” Post, said he’s not sure when a summary judgment decision might come. The issues at hand are more complicated than those regarding the initial preliminary judgment decision, and that still took about four months for Gilchrist to write.

But Silverman said the wait for the 11-page order wasn’t unusual.

“As you can see, the written document is pretty lengthy,” he said. “... It takes a while to put together.”

Gilchrist explained some of his thinking in court, but what he wrote — and which facts he chose to note — could give insight into his thinking on the controversial case.

He goes through a progression of basic facts, such as the constitutional basis of the community college system and the process for selecting trustees for those colleges. Also included is text of the statute that shows that many of the college’s trustees, including the four plaintiffs, were technically appointed illegally.

That issue is at the crux of the case: The state argues that local Rep. Mike Stone acted reasonably in crafting a law to remove people from a board who were appointed incorrectly, since the Chatham County and Harnett County school boards were being deprived of the representation they were technically due.

The plaintiffs, however, argue that by only removing them and not others who were also wrongly appointed, the law treated them unfairly and even unconstitutionally. They were all appointed by the Lee County Board of Education, and Stone is a Republican. They allege political retribution.

As proof, Silverman cited the original text of the bill, which would have taken the power of appointment away from the school board and given it to the majority conservative Lee County Board of Commissioners — yet both those moves would likely have been found to be illegal.

The bill was eventually modified by a legislative committee, but Silverman argued that the full context shows the true intentions behind the bill, citing case law that said such background is relevant in these kinds of legal debates.

The state cited other case law saying the exact opposite — courts aren’t always consistent — but it appears Gilchrist favored Silverman’s position, at least at this stage in the hearing. His fact findings include both the final version of the law and a summary of that initial version.

Gilchrist also acknowledged the contentious nature of the case, saying he ruled on the side of caution.

“As alleged in Plaintiff’s complaint, a present and real controversy exists between the parties as to the constitutionality of the subject bill ...” Gilchrist wrote, later concluding that “plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if a preliminary injunction is not issued” because the law removed them from office and also prohibited them from seeking reelection in the near future.

But again, that was all decided in August; it’s only been officially written and expounded upon now. The wait is still on for the bigger development to see if the case will continue on or if Gilchrist decides to rule in favor of one side or the other before a trial begins.