Litigation ban to be studied for UNC civil rights center; no new lawsuits in meantime

A UNC Board of Governors committee will study a proposed ban on litigation by the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and for now, the center has been told not to initiate or join any new lawsuits.

The board’s educational planning and policies committee debated the proposal Thursday before a crowd of the center’s supporters, including law students and clients involved in the center’s work.

The center, affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, has taken on legal cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice. It was founded by the late noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, who also served as chancellor of N.C. Central University and has represented low-income and minority communities.

Steve Long, a UNC board member and Raleigh lawyer, wants to prohibit the center from filing legal complaints, motions or lawsuits or suing any individual, entity or government. He said the board has the authority to control litigation in the name of the university, and he tried to draw a distinction between the law school’s legal clinics that provide education to students.

Suing the state and its municipalities violates the mission of the university. ... Government-funded lawyers are litigious.

Steve Long, a UNC Board of Governors member and Raleigh lawyer

“This proposed policy is designed to keep the focus of UNC centers on education and avoid any more centers engaging in litigation,” he said, adding, “Suing the state and its municipalities violates the mission of the university.”

Long said he was shocked a few years ago when he heard about a case by the center that challenged Pitt County schools’ reassignment plan. The case cost $500,000 in attorney’s fees, he said, adding, “Government-funded lawyers are litigious.”

But several members said they had significant questions about Long’s proposal.

Hannah Gage, a former board chair and nonvoting member of the board, said she had looked at a list of cases the center had handled. “It’s important work for our state,” she said, “and it’s meaningful work.”

She said this proposed action by the board would not fall into the strategic priorities of the university system, recently adopted in December. “I’m very much somebody that would wish we would stay in our own lane,” said Gage, a businesswoman from Wilmington.

Pearl Burris-Floyd, a board member from Gastonia and former legislator, said practical experience with cases can be a real benefit for law students.

“If this policy is adopted, then would this be something that would help our campuses or it would it cause greater disruption and divisiveness on the campuses?” she asked.

Further study

Board member Thom Goolsby, a lawyer and former legislator from Wilmington, said he supported Long’s proposal because he doesn’t believe the law school center should sue other government entities.

“I know there are a lot of people at the General Assembly that have those same concerns, and I think it would be appropriate for us to act since it’s under our responsibility, instead of casting another decision up to the General Assembly,” he said.

The committee voted to study the issue further, and called for UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt to make recommendations on the issue, and for Folt and NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye to prepare a report on the proposed ban’s impact. NCCU has the state’s other public law school.

UNC Law Dean Martin Brinkley, in the meantime, has pledged that the center will only work on current cases and not join any new lawsuits.

I think the only reason for this is an ideological attack on the nature of the work that we do.

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the center, said he was extremely disappointed. “I think the only reason for this is an ideological attack on the nature of the work that we do,” Dorosin said.

The center’s director, Ted Shaw, said he was disturbed by the whole process. “I’m just waiting until we have some voice, because obviously we had no voice in here today,” he said.

The proposed ban would technically apply to all UNC centers and institutes but would practically only affect the civil rights center.

A number of public university law schools have Innocence Projects that work to free those wrongfully convicted. Many law schools also have a variety of legal clinics that represent clients while providing students practical experience in the law.

UNC Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam, a nonvoting member of the committee, said it’s important for law students to have relevant experience, and the difference among legal clinics, programs, projects and centers seems to be largely “semantic.”

Center’s work

The civil rights center has been involved in legal cases on educational equity and desegregation, including the landmark Leandro lawsuit that resulted in a N.C. Supreme Court ruling that all children were entitled to a sound, basic education. It 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 community that had already dealt with problems associated with 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. Last month, lawyers argued in the state Supreme Court on behalf of people who were involuntarily sterilized by the state.

The center was among several centers and institutes under scrutiny by the board a few years ago, and Long, who has served on the board of the conservative Civitas Institute, quizzed center directors about “diversity of opinion.” The civil rights center survived, but three centers associated with left-leaning agendas were abolished in what critics said was a politically motivated exercise.

Rex Young, a third-year law student at UNC, said he had volunteered with the center in his first and second year, and the experience was invaluable in making him competitive in the job market.

“It’s very much the sort of public service that is the mission of North Carolina’s great public universities like UNC,” Young said. “It couldn’t be more central to the research skills that lawyers need, and there’s nothing non-academic about it.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill