UNC board takes aim at civil rights center’s legal powers

The UNC Center for Civil Rights, which has taken up cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice, would be prevented from suing under a proposal before the UNC Board of Governors.

Raleigh lawyer and member Joe Knott, a UNC graduate, recommended a policy that will be discussed Thursday by a board committee. The policy draft would prevent any UNC system center or institute from filing a “complaint, motion, lawsuit or other legal claim” against any individual, entity or government. The center could not act as legal counsel or employ legal counsel for any party under the proposal.

Knott said Monday he put forth the policy change out of “deep concern” for the university.

“We need to confine ourselves to our mission, which is academic,” he said. “The university is not a public interest law firm and doesn’t need to be.”

The policy appears to only apply to the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which is affiliated with the UNC law school in Chapel Hill.

Director Ted Shaw said the center is not that different from entities at other law schools, such as clinics, that provide legal training to students while representing parties in disputes.

We need to confine ourselves to our mission, which is academic. The university is not a public interest law firm and doesn’t need to be.

Joe Knott, a UNC Board of Governors member who wants to prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights from suing

A number of public university law schools have Innocence Projects that work to free those wrongfully convicted. The University of Virginia operates more than a dozen clinics in which students and faculty work on a variety of legal cases involving everything from criminal charges to housing law violations.

“If a law school is in the business of training new generations of lawyers, and if law schools are under pressure, as they have been in recent years, to produce practice-ready graduates, then it’s difficult for me to see how this does not fit within the law school’s mission,” Shaw said. “It just so happens that what we focus on is civil rights. One can ask the question if that’s the concern of some of the people who are coming after the center. I leave it to observers to ask that question and arrive at their own conclusion.”

Earlier this month, the center’s lawyers argued in the state Supreme Court on behalf of people who were involuntarily sterilized by the state. “It’s an example of the state engaging in conduct that was deeply problematic and raises constitutional issues,” Shaw said.

Other cases

The UNC center participated in big cases about educational equity and desegregation, including a 2006 case in Pitt County. It was involved in the landmark Leandro lawsuit that resulted in a N.C. Supreme Court ruling that all children were entitled to a sound, basic education. The center represented students, parents and the Charlotte branch of the NAACP, contending that the re-segregation of the school district had violated their constitutional rights under Leandro.

The center has also been involved in housing, zoning and environmental justice lawsuits. A 2011 suit against Brunswick County challenged a decision to locate a waste dump in a low-income, largely African-American community that had already dealt with other environmental problems caused by a sewage treatment plant, a hog farm and a fish farm. The county ultimately settled the case, stopping the dump and instead building an elementary school in the area.

Shaw said the center can often achieve settlements precisely because it has the leverage of taking a party to court, but in many instances, the cases never make it that far.

It just so happens that what we focus on is civil rights. One can ask the question if that’s the concern of some of the people who are coming after the center. I leave it to observers to ask that question and arrive at their own conclusion.

Ted Shaw, director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights

“Those are important victories, and it shows we aren’t just hell-bent on suing defendants for the sake of suing them,” he said.

The center was founded in 2001 by the late, famed civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, former chancellor of N.C. Central University. It is supported by private funds.

It first came under scrutiny of the UNC system’s governing board three years ago as part of a wide-ranging review of all centers and institutes by the board, which became majority Republican after the 2010 elections in which the GOP took control of the legislature.

In 2014, one board member, Raleigh lawyer Steve Long, questioned the center’s leaders about what he said was a lack of “diversity of opinion” at the center. He said the center shouldn’t be suing government entities such as school districts.

Poverty center

The civil rights center was left intact after the review, which resulted in the 2015 closure of three other centers, including the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The poverty center, also affiliated with the law school, was abolished in a move that some claimed was retribution for its well-known director, Gene Nichol, who had written opinion pieces critical of Republican leaders in The News & Observer.

Long also recommended the new policy in a Feb. 14 memo to the board.

“Filing legal actions against the State or city and county governments is far outside the primarily academic purpose of UNC centers,” Long wrote. “So too is the representation of private parties by full-time university center employees (as opposed to law students as part of a law clinic program where student education is the primary focus).”

He wrote that there’s a distinction between legal clinics that exist for the training of students and a center that was primarily run by university employees. And, he wrote, without oversight centers can pursue litigation “that advances personal causes and interests of center personnel rather than UNC’s educational mission.”

The earliest the board could vote on the policy would be May.

A UNC-Chapel Hill spokesperson, Joanne Peters, said the campus hopes to learn more about the proposal in the coming days.

“Carolina believes in and supports the mission, the work and the legacy of the Center for Civil Rights at the School of Law,” she said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill