Gene Nichol: Confessions of a firebrand

Then-UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity director and law professor Gene Nichol decribes the mission of the center to the UNC Board of Governors working group Thursday, December 11, 2014.
Then-UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity director and law professor Gene Nichol decribes the mission of the center to the UNC Board of Governors working group Thursday, December 11, 2014. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

I was not surprised last week to see the News & Observer “Influencers” series emphasize the demise of civility as one of our state’s leading problems. According to the narrative, polarization and a depleted cadre of centrists plague us. Fewer Tar Heels, these days, are willing to give meaningful audience to opposing viewpoints.

Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures, put it this way: “The biggest issue we have as a state is we have stopped listening to each other, we focus more on what divides us than unites us.”

It’s hard to deny that. But still.

I probably used to be an “Influencer” type. After all, I did extended terms as dean of two flagship law schools and a brief, though admittedly controversial, stint as a university president. I’m not unfamiliar with the accepted ways and embraced etiquette of the actualized world.

But I remembered a story in the national press some years ago when Tom Ross got fired and the poverty center was closed. The report, which was critical of the Board of Governors and generally congenial towards me, explained: “Ross is a Democrat, but he’s a ‘patrician liberal’ – hardly a firebrand like Nichol.” Firebrand? Ugh. No civility awards coming my way. Rightly so.

The UNC Board of Governors voted to ban the UNC Center for Civil Rights from representing its low-income and minority clients. Opponents say it would hurt UNC’s academic reputation.

I’ll confess I don’t think the answer to North Carolina’s stunning war on decency (see, there you go) is to move a smidgen or two toward the compassionate and humane side or to coolly moderate the General Assembly’s path-breaking agenda of tribalism. It won’t work, at this point, to focus on what “unites” us. When folks blatantly and enthusiastically reject equality, democracy, separated powers, checks and balances, and the traditions of constitutional government, it won’t do to say, “Hey bud, I’ll meet you in the middle.”

Think about it. Federal courts have repeatedly found and Republican leaders have occasionally admitted to a bold and historically stunning agenda to diminish African-American political participation and representation in North Carolina. Through state and federal redistricting plans, biased ID laws, ballot access tampering, polling place restrictions, threatened criminal prosecutions and public accusations of voter ineligibility, Republicans have sought to re-embrace Jim Crow electoral schemes.

James Wood, a 19-year-old Raleigh resident, shook his finger at legislators on Friday Aug. 4, 2017, during a joint committee of the N.C. state House and Senate select redistricting committee. He urged the lawmakers to draw fair maps to correct 28

The program reached a crescendo last week when Taranta Holman was arrested, handcuffed and jailed – in front of his crying daughters – for mistakenly voting in 2016, while he was apparently still on probation. He had no idea he couldn’t vote. So Holman’s going to trial. There’s no middle ground with this lot that still leaves you on the right side of the American promise.

We’ve boasted of pushing frontiers in the denial of equal human dignity to lesbian, gay and transgender Tar Heels. Through animus-driven amendments, licenses to discriminate in government services, and internationally-denounced bathroom regulations meant to humiliate and endanger the vulnerable, we’ve declared thousands of our sisters and brothers officially diminished.

We’ve done the same to poor folks. Unlike a large majority of states, we rejected Medicaid expansion, causing the premature deaths of thousands and depriving North Carolina of billions of federal dollars. We blocked eligible food stamp recipients from receiving federal funds, saving the state no money. We slashed unemployment compensation and earned income tax programs in ways no other state government has ventured.

And now, yet again, the General Assembly seeks to crush the independence of the judiciary – changing the rules, mid-election, in one race, and trying to take over the selection process in the rest. After ending public financing, re-introducing partisan races, curbing jurisdiction in constitutional cases, intervening by statute to protect a Republican Supreme Court incumbent, manipulating the size of the Court of Appeals, eliminating primaries, re-districting disfavored Wake and Mecklenburg county courts, moving to reduce gubernatorial appointments, and threatening judges with two year terms, we’re told all this is in search of high-quality justice. No person in North Carolina believes that.

Senate Bill 3, a bill concerning party affiliation in judicial races, was introduced and voted on after a heated debate on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

These measures aren’t judgment calls. Nor are they miscalculations. They are explicit refutations of our constitutive norms and unhidden repudiations of the premises of egalitarian democracy. Facing them with pleas for moderation, civility and purported common ground betrays our calling as a people. That’s nothing to either seek or brag about.