Restrictions on rights center risk UNC’s intellectual climate, law dean says

Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, is opposing a proposal to ban the school’s Center for Civil Rights and others like it from representing clients.
Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, is opposing a proposal to ban the school’s Center for Civil Rights and others like it from representing clients. UNC-Chapel Hill

Already, a UNC system Board of Governors proposal to bar the UNC Center for Civil Rights and other law-school centers and institutes from representing clients has harmed the university, the dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law says.

It “interferes with and diminishes the quality of the intellectual environment, not just at the law school but in the university as a whole, in ways from which the institution will not soon recover,” said Martin Brinkley, a former private-practice attorney who became the School of Law’s dean in 2015. “The proposal will do great damage to one of North Carolina’s most treasured assets: a great state university.”

Brinkley’s comment appeared at the start of a five-page letter UNC-Chapel Hill officials forwarded to the board as part of their response to response to the proposed legal-aid ban. The letter said Brinkley did “not purport to speak” for the instituion.

But he was one of the five people who put the finishing touches on the university’s actual, 56-page response to a proposal that came earlier this year from BOG member Steve Long.

Answering a string of questions from a board committee, Long and BOG member Bill Webb, the university memo said the Center for Civil Rights has helped train more than 600 law students since its founding by the School of Law in 2001.

It also defended its role in litigation like a school-desegregation lawsuit in Pitt County, noting that most of the top-ranked law schools in the country have embraced the idea that law students need “experiential learning” via direct participation in legal work and the legal process.

And for lawyers and would-be lawyers, there’s no room for half measures when it comes to representing the interests of clients, the university memo said.

“The Center [for Civil Rights] trains students to be advocates,” it said. “Its function is not to ‘tell both sides of the story,’ any more than any other experiential legal training is duty-bound to do. Lawyers are not expected to represent the interests of their clients’ adversaries. Instead, it is their duty to represent their own clients zealously. It would be unethical to do anything less.”

The memo — reviewed before its release by a group that included Brinkley, Provost Jim Dean, UNC-Chapel Hill General Counsel Mark Merritt, Center for Civil Rights Director Ted Shaw and former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds — disagreed with Long’s argument that university-affiliated centers and institutes shouldn’t be in the business of suing other arms of the government.

To the contrary, almost all public law schools in the U.S. engage in litigation, and the government is on the opposite side “in nearly all of these matters,” it said, listing actions spearheaded by law clinics from such institutions as the University of Texas, the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Davis and Wayne State University.

The memo went on to defend the Center for Civil Rights’ particular focus on working with black and low-income families in eastern North Carolina.

For being poor, reliant on public schools and disportionately living in public or subsidized housing, they’re “much more likely than others” to find themselves at the sharp end of government action, the university memo said. Moreover, thanks to federal and state cutbacks in legal-aid funding and the legal profession’s “lackluster” provision of pro-bono representation, they usually can’t get help when they do.

Though the N.C. State Bar — a state regulatory agency whose rules have the force of law — says members are responsible for trying to do at least 50 hours of work a year for clients unable to pay for it, only about “10 percent of North Carolina attorneys report providing pro bono legal services each year,” UNC-Chapel Hill officials said.

Brinkley’s separate letter tied those points together.

“Civil rights are individual rights which the state protects from infringement by its own actors,” he said. “When those rights are ignored or taken away, the ultimately responsible party is often a governmental unit of one kind or another. Vindicating promised rights in court is what lawyers do.”

He also quoted conservative economist George Stigler’s argument that universities are supposed to be “a disruptive force” that sparks “discontent with the existing moral, social and political institutions and proposes new institutions to replace them.”

Brinkley’s comments were noteworthy because he’d previously suspended the Center for Civil Rights’ ability to take on new clients while the BOG reviews Long’s proposal. Before becoming dean, he practiced corporate law with the Smith Anderson firm and did a stint as the president of the N.C. Bar Association, the private-sector trade group for the state’s lawyers.

He was recruited for the UNC-Chapel Hill job by a search committee that included two-time former gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot and former state Sen. Richard Stevens, Republicans from Mecklenburg and Wake counties respectively. When campus officials announced the hire, the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Republican and UNC Law alum Mark Martin, said Brinkley was “an exceptional choice” to lead the school and would “bring people together” for the benefit of its students.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s filing came in time for a system-scheduled public-comment session on Long’s proposal that will occur on May 11, at 11 a.m. in the Center for School Leadership Development.

It also squared with Provost Dean’s March promise to faculty that the administration would “do our best” to defend the Center for Civil Rights.

Dean at that time said officials had enlisted “outside people who are alumni or friends” of the law school to polish the university’s response. That turned out to be Edmunds, a Republican and 1975 UNC Law graduate who lost his bid for third term on the state Supreme Coiurt last fall.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg