Politics & Government

UNC board bans legal action at civil rights center

Fayetteville State University's Chancellor James Anderson speaks to the Board of Governors about the importance of legal clinics for poor people before they cast a vote to ban litigation at the UNC Center for Civil Rights on Friday Sept. 8, 2017.
Fayetteville State University's Chancellor James Anderson speaks to the Board of Governors about the importance of legal clinics for poor people before they cast a vote to ban litigation at the UNC Center for Civil Rights on Friday Sept. 8, 2017. jwall@newsobserver.com

After months of controversy and widespread opposition, the UNC Board of Governors on Friday approved a ban on litigation that will prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights from doing legal work for low-income and minority groups.

The ban would apply to all UNC centers, but would effectively end the civil rights center at UNC’s law school. The future of the center is unclear; its work could continue if it becomes a separate nonprofit group or a legal clinic at UNC. The center is currently funded with private donations.

UNC board members who supported the ban said it’s improper and outside UNC’s mission to engage in legal action against other government entities such as school districts and county boards. Critics of the ban said it would harm UNC students’ legal education, hurt the university’s academic reputation and effectively shut down the center, which was founded by noted civil rights attorney Julius Chambers.

James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, stood and called the vote “a day of reckoning” for the UNC system. “We are being asked to think about our fundamental values and our humanity,” he said, adding that American society cares for children, the aged and the poor. “Sometimes humanity transcends politics.”

Three members – Anna Spangler Nelson, Pearl Burris-Floyd and Walter Davenport – voted against the ban. Tyler Hardin, the student member, said he would have voted no but the student representative on the board does not have a vote. Darrell Allison abstained, saying he was torn between his head and his heart, describing Chambers as a mentor who helped him obtain a White House internship.

Nelson questioned the appropriateness of the board even taking up the issue. “For some, this is trespassing on sacred ground,” she said, adding that to her, the university’s reputation was on the line. Nelson, of Charlotte, is the daughter of former UNC President C.D. Spangler.

Board member Bill Webb praised the center’s work, but he voted for the ban. He said he only wanted to prevent the center from suing the state. “Clinics, to me, are the proper vehicle through which litigation should take place,” he said.

Webb, a former magistrate judge from Raleigh, added that it was a “base canard” that people have suggested the board doesn’t support civil rights. “I would not serve on such a board,” said Webb, who is African-American.

Steve Long, the Raleigh lawyer who proposed the ban, said legal clinics can still support the poor. “Our commitment to civil rights is strong, including mine,” he said.

Burris-Floyd, who voted no, described how she met Chambers when he came to her hometown of Dallas, N.C., a long time ago to take a pro bono case of a woman who had been stabbed by her husband.

“He came into town, he met at my church, and he was so impressive because of his compassion for people,” said Burris-Floyd, a former legislator. “There are poor people all over the state of North Carolina that benefited from what the UNC civil rights center has done. They will still need that help. Who will be there to help them?”

After the vote, Mark Dorosin, an attorney at the center, stood and asked how the board could say it supported civil rights, after shutting the center down. “I implore you to be honest with the people of this state, you owe them that,” he said.

A board member interjected, saying Dorosin was out of order. “You’re out of order,” Dorosin said, his voice rising. “You’re out of order! To say that you support civil rights is out of order.”

Outside the board’s meeting Friday, protesters shouted as a heavy presence of police officers kept watch on the building. “Shame on you, shame on you,” they chanted after the vote.

The center’s director, Ted Shaw, addressed the crowd with a bullhorn as protesters held high large photographs of Chambers, who attended UNC’s law school, served on the first UNC Board of Governors and became chancellor of N.C. Central University after his storied civil rights law career. Chambers died in 2013.

Shaw said he wasn’t surprised with the vote. “Shame on these folks, shame on them, but they’re on the wrong side of history,” he said of the board.

“We will do our best to make sure this work continues, wherever it has to continue,” he added. “We will continue the struggle on behalf of black and brown poor people in the legacy of Julius Chambers.”

He said the board’s decision was not about the form of the center, but about its substance. “We had over 600 law professors, clinicians, deans from around the country support the center and oppose what they just did,” Shaw said. “That says everything that needs to be said.”

Elizabeth Haddix, another lawyer at the center, asked the crowd to make donations to continue the center’s work. “We need financial support,” Haddix said. “Do not give a dime to the university.”

Faculty and student groups had weighed in against the ban on legal work by the center, which was also opposed by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC’s law dean, Martin Brinkley. It had also been opposed by the law school at N.C. Central University.

Folt issued a statement Friday saying she was disappointed with the board’s vote. “I believe that the University and the people who testified on behalf of the Center made a compelling case about why the Center is so important to the people of the state,” her statement said.

“We now must determine a path forward for the Center and reconfirm our commitment to educating the next generation of civil rights lawyers and providing assistance to the poor and disadvantaged in North Carolina,” Folt’s statement continued. “I will work with other University leaders, stakeholders and the school of law to explore all options and develop a course of action that allows us to continue this vitally important work while adhering to the new policy adopted by the Board of Governors today.”

Lou Bissette, the board’s chairman and an Asheville lawyer, said the vote was not meant to target the UNC law school or the Center for Civil Rights. “It’s about a particular aspect of the civil rights center’s work,” he said.

Bissette said he didn’t have any problem with the civil rights center becoming a law clinic at UNC. Law clinics are formed under guidelines of the American Bar Association and are primarily for law students’ education through casework.

Friday’s vote marked the second time the UNC Board of Governors has terminated the work of a UNC law school center. Two years ago, the board abolished the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, in what critics said was a politically motivated move.

Late Friday, Steve Leonard, a UNC political science professor and former leader of a systemwide faculty group, told UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Council that he was going to send a letter to the university’s accrediting organization about the Board of Governors’ overreach.

“The problem here is that we’ve now reached a point where the Board of Governors is acting in ways that interfere with faculty prerogative on curriculum, on research and on service,” Leonard said. “If we don’t stand up now and try to at least maintain the authority we have over these things, we’re probably going to be in tough shape going forward.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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