After 16 years of providing legal relief to North Carolina’s most vulnerable residents, the future of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights hangs in the balance. A UNC Board of Governors committee voted 5 to 1 to recommend a policy banning litigation by UNC centers and institutes on August 1.
While the proposal would technically apply to all centers and institutes within the system, only the Center for Civil Rights engages in litigation. The full board will vote on the proposal in September.
“The center likely won’t be able to survive if it can’t litigate,” UNC law professor Gene Nichols wrote in an email to Diverse. Nichols, who was then the dean of the law school, recruited civil rights icon Julius Chambers to found the center in 2001.
Since its founding, the center has defended civil rights causes, addressing cases of discrimination in areas such as housing and voting rights, public schools, the workplace and the environment. The center extends legal assistance to disenfranchised and low-income North Carolinians who many say might otherwise lack representation.
The center’s efforts are aimed at dismantling the ongoing legacy of racial discrimination and inequality in North Carolina, according to Ted Shaw, director of the center and UNC law professor and former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). “That legacy is with us, it’s still not completely undone in spite of all the progress we’ve made,” Shaw said.
The center’s work builds on Chambers’ legacy. A UNC law school alumnus, Chambers graduated at the top of his law school class in 1962 and was editor-in-chief of the law review before going on to an illustrious career as a civil rights lawyer, eventually succeeding Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg as president and director-counsel of the NAACP LDF. He endured firebombings of his home, office and car over the course of his career.
“The work that he did wasn’t always appreciated, but it was good work, it was necessary, and it made the state better,” Shaw said.
In addition to its public service engagement, the center also provides experiential learning opportunities to UNC law school students who assist the center’s attorneys as interns and volunteers.
Many have spoken out in the center’s defense, including UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Carol L. Folt, and more than 600 law school faculty and administrators who signed a letter in its support in July.
“We deeply regret the decision by the Board of Governors committee,” UNC Law School Dean Martin H. Brinkley said in an emailed statement. “If upheld by the full board, North Carolinians who have few opportunities for legal representation will suffer all the more.”
Those most likely to be impacted by any changes to the center’s functions are low-income residents of the state, who have turned to the center for assistance in a host of issues. “If the center no longer exists, that’s a tremendous blow to communities that cannot afford legal fees in trying to protect themselves and being able to prevent anything from happening to them,” said Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN).
NCEJN has worked with the center on several lawsuits concerning environmental discrimination. One recent case involved a complaint filed in 2014 with the US Environmental Protection Agency against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. NCEJN and several other advocacy groups allege that the DEQ has failed to protect North Carolinians from hog industry waste polluting the air and water. “Our hope is that the board will come their senses,” Muhammad said.
Board members in favor of banning litigation at the center argue that as a state-funded entity, the center should not be engaged in lawsuits against other parts of the state. Others point out that because the center is privately funded, UNC does not fund the salaries of the two attorneys employed by the center, nor does it fund any of the center’s cases. “It is not funded by the state, but for some folks, facts don’t get in the way, and that’s unfortunate,” Shaw said.
As a full-time faculty member of UNC, Shaw’s salary is paid for by the university. He also earns a small stipend as director of the center, as do directors of other UNC centers. Shaw does not litigate any of the center’s cases.
Efforts to curtail the center’s activities have been led by Steven Long, board member and former board member of the conservative Civitas Institute. The board itself has become increasingly Republican, reflecting a similar shift in the state General Assembly, which swung to a Republican majority in 2010.
Moves to chip away at UNC’s advocacy work began well before the current attempt to neutralize the Center for Civil Rights. After a review of 240 centers within the UNC system, a board panel decided to close three centers that honed in on issues of poverty, the environment and social justice in 2015.
Shaw arrived at UNC in 2014 just as the reviews were beginning. “That was really my introduction to UNC and the Board of Governors,” he said. “I had just gotten here shortly before that, so that was my hello.” He has had concerns about the center’s future since then but is hopeful that the board may change course in September.
“I just refuse to give in to despair,” Shaw said. “I’m hoping they can find their way through to turning in another direction, and decide that they don’t have to crush or get rid of everybody who thinks differently than they do. But I also understand what the politics of the times are in North Carolina.”
If the board votes in favor of the proposal in September, there are some alternatives that might allow the center to survive in an altered form, although none are necessarily guarantees of its ultimate longevity.
Nichols said that the privately-funded center could split from UNC, “but separating from the university would weaken the student connection and I know the Center folks don’t want that.” The center could also move to a private institution in North Carolina, where it would have more leverage to continue its work. North Carolina has seven law schools, four of which are affiliated with private universities.
“That would break people’s hearts here too,” Nichols commented. “But private universities here can still do civil rights work.”
The historically Black North Carolina Central University is the only other public institution in the state with a law school. The stand-alone Charlotte School of Law had its access to federal loan money discontinued in December 2016 after the American Board Association placed the school on probation, and it is in a state of limbo but continues to serve students.
Others have suggested that the center could be converted to a clinic. That proposal has its limitations, however. “There are a number of things that would make that difficult,” Shaw said. “Not impossible, but difficult.” UNC currently lacks the resources and space to establish a new clinic, and there is no assurance that the donors who fund the center’s current work would put the same level of support behind a clinic.
“While a civil rights clinic could be established — the Law School has successful clinical programs in several other areas — we do not currently have the funding, staff or space this effort would require,” Folt wrote in a July 28 letter to the board committee.
Presciently, Chambers believed that the day would come when conservatives in the state would seek to close the center, according to Nichols. “Julius lived a long and heroic life — he never believed the horror of race discrimination in North Carolina had disappeared,” Nichols said.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.