After Bryan Collins, a Wake County Superior Court judge and graduate of the UNC School of Law, ruled in UNC-Chapel Hill’s favor in a recent public records case, a debate erupted on newsobserver.com as to whether Collins’ UNC connections influenced his decision.
The News & Observer is the plaintiff in the case. We sued UNC, seeking a spreadsheet that summarized the number of athletes (by sport) who were enrolled in classes that were supposed to meet but never did.
UNC previously released similar records covering 2007 to 2011 but declined to release the information going back to 1997, when the no-show classes are believed to have begun. We thought the older spreadsheet might offer insight as to how and why the classes started.
Collins, who received his undergraduate degree from Davidson College, ruled against us. He said if the spreadsheet were made public, at least one athlete could be identified. Releasing the spreadsheet, Collins wrote, would violate a federal education privacy law.
“I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Judge Collins is a UNC Rams Club member?” one commenter wrote. “The man should have recused himself with such a clear conflict of interest and obvious lack of impartiality.”
Another commenter responded: “Case law has dictated prior that a judge is not disqualified solely because of their contributions to their alma mater’s athletic fund. … In addition, Collins has neither fiduciary nor personal stake in the outcome of the athlete information.”
I disagree with the first commenter. I don’t think attending law school in Chapel Hill should disqualify a judge from hearing any case involving the university. Nor should a modest contribution to a booster club (I don’t know how much Collins gives to the Rams Club if, indeed, he is a member).
The first commenter assumed that Collins’ connections to UNC meant he could not be an impartial arbiter. I don’t think that’s the case. By their codes of ethics, judges and lawyers are obligated to set aside personal connections and focus on the facts and the law. That’s what good judges do. I believe that’s what Judge Collins did.
Our lawyer, Hugh Stevens of Raleigh, and I both thought we got a fair shake from Collins. He took the case seriously. He asked good questions of both sides. After looking at the data, he concluded that releasing it would show that a certain athlete took a certain class.
I’ll take his word for it; neither Stevens nor I have seen the data. We still believe there is a way for UNC to aggregate the data in a way that doesn’t identify specific athletes. “They could aggregate all sports together or they could lump together several semesters or years,” an out-of-state college administrator wrote to me. “I am confident that there is a way to avoid the problem of identifying individuals.”
Our state has great colleges and universities. North Carolinians are proud of that, as we should be. Many graduates feel a strong connection to their college. Some people assume that judges, lawyers, journalists and others cannot set those feelings aside and do their job.
That might be true with some people, but plenty of others can. A few years ago, The N&O was part of a media coalition that sued UNC-Chapel Hill about access to records associated with an NCAA investigation.
We won that case. The judge was Howard Manning, who received undergraduate and law degrees from UNC. We were represented by Stevens, who also has undergraduate and law degrees from UNC and is a former chairman of the Friends of the Library at UNC.
They were doing their job. So was Collins.