Threat goes beyond Gene Nichol

Victor B. Flatt.
Victor B. Flatt. Steve Exum

A special committee of the UNC Board of Governors recommended last week that the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, housed at the UNC School of Law, be closed. The BOG undertook a review of all of the university system’s centers (some 237 at 16 campuses) after complaints arose about Professor and Poverty Center Director Gene Nichol’s criticisms of legislative decisions that he contended were making North Carolina’s poverty worse. The recommendation now goes before the entire Board of Governors, and we urge them not to accept it.

All state universities, and their divisions, are answerable to the people and legislature of a state, and questions about resource allocation are fair. Money allocated for one purpose means it cannot be used for another. However, the UNC Poverty Center has used no state funds since 2009, and if closed, will have to return private grant money that it is using to hire staff and work with students to explore the legal issues surrounding N.C. poverty. It therefore appears that the Poverty Center was recommended for closure based on the positions it took over state policies. To close the Poverty Center for this reason endangers the very heart of free speech and legal education, not just in North Carolina, but nationwide.

We represent a national group of environmental law professors and clinicians from more than 30 public and private law schools across the country. We urge the BOG, and all regulators of institutes of higher education, to reject basing university decisions on the popularity of political positions. We come to this position based on important experience in our environmental legal field.

While most of the nation and our leaders publicly support environmental protection, when the promises and requirements of these environmental laws need to be enforced, it often falls to law schools to take up the cause. Indeed, environmental laws are written to explicitly provide for “citizen enforcement” when the federal and state governments can’t or won’t do so.

Beyond filling enforcement gaps and examining important issues about existing and future environmental laws and policies, we believe that practical experience in environmental centers and clinics is good for law students, helping them to blend theory and practice and develop a richer understanding of what it means to be a lawyer. This not only vindicates existing environmental laws, but also provides a practical education to our students interested in working in the environmental law sphere. While most of them will not end up representing non-paying clients, they will need to rely on the skills they receive at our schools concerning the administrative process, litigation, and substantive knowledge of environmental law.

As with the Poverty Center, much of our work involves representing society’s least powerful. Particularly in the environmental law realm, statutes that are designed to protect the public good often fail to do so most often for the poorest, making them the most likely to need our services. Moreover, lawyers have a responsibility to assist the most vulnerable in society. This service ethos is echoed in state bar pro bono requirements across the country.

While this may give the appearance that the work of our centers and clinics is one-sided, in reality this is the model that must exist to enforce environmental laws and prepare students to be members of the various state bars.

The past two decades have brought threats to close environmental law clinics in Oregon, Maryland and Louisiana because they represented parties adverse to powerful interests. Beyond these explicit threats, there have been multiple complaints about law professor representation of environmental positions nationwide. We feel the threat to the Poverty Center, and more importantly those it represents, is similar in nature and therefore speak out against it.

Flatt is director of the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources (CLEAR) at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law. Longest is director of the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic at Duke Law School.