UNC board to decide this summer on whether civil rights center will have litigation ban

The future of UNC’s Center for Civil Rights is headed toward consideration by the UNC Board of Governors this summer, following significant turnover and a crop of new board members.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights is likely to be before the board in July or later, after a shift in the board’s membership on July 1, when eight of 12 open seats will be occupied by new members.

A proposed litigation ban at the center was discussed briefly Thursday during a UNC Board of Governors committee meeting, but no action was taken. The board now waits for proposals from UNC-Chapel Hill campus leaders, who may recommend alternative structures for operating the center.

Founded in 2001 by noted civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, the privately funded center, its staff lawyers and law students have taken on legal cases of school desegregation, fair housing and environmental justice for poor and minority clients. Law school leaders say it is a key component of “experiential education” at the center, and N.C. Central University law school leaders have said a ban on legal action would have a harmful impact on its 14 law clinics where students gain practical experience.

The board has been deluged with mail from hundreds of center supporters, who have argued that it is important for students’ legal education and the university’s public service mission. Several board members have stated that the civil rights center should not be allowed to participate in lawsuits against other government entities such as school boards, cities and counties.

Center supporters have also suggested that the proposal to bar lawsuits is a politically driven attack. The board is overwhelmingly Republican; five members on the incoming board are former Republican state legislators.

There were statements of support for the center Thursday from two board members. Hannah Gage of Wilmington, former chair of the board, said a recent public session on the civil rights center was one of the most impressive presentations she’s seen.

“What we discovered was the unintended consequences of this policy change,” she said, especially on NCCU’s law clinics. “The implications are dire.”

Gage, a Democrat, will leave the board in June.

Board member Bill Webb of Raleigh suggested there could be modifications to the proposed ban to avoid consequences for legal clinics at the two public law schools. Webb, a Republican, is serving a term on the board until 2019.

“The center is a treasure,” Webb said, adding that he does not support its litigation against other state entities. “But I think it is a wonderful resource we have, both academically and as experiential learning on the part of law schools.”

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney at the civil rights center, said there is no alternative structure that would work if litigation isn’t an available tool.

“There’s no way to perform the essential mission without engaging in litigation,” he said. Dorosin added that while the center often doesn’t end up filing lawsuits on behalf of clients, its negotiations would be futile without the possibility of litigation.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill