University of North Carolina School of Law Van Hecke-Wettach Building portico at dusk. Credit: Dan Sears/UNC School of Law.

A proposal to block a civil rights law center at the University of North Carolina School of Law from litigating cases won initial approval Tuesday, over the objections of center supporters who allege the move is politically motivated.

A UNC Board of Governors’ committee voted to send the proposal regarding the law school’s  Center for Civil Rights to the full board for final consideration at its next meeting, Sept. 8.

Proponents of the restriction argue that a public university should not be filing lawsuits against local government entities, with taxpayers left paying the defense bills.

But opponents, including the law school, the chancellor of the university system’s flagship Chapel Hill campus, and hundreds of law professors around the country, counter that litigation is an important tool in the fight for justice and that litigating cases is a key aspect of legal education. Moreover, such a move threatens the law school’s academic freedom, they warned.

“A university’s ability to attract top students and faculty rests upon the notion that it must be free to take up controversial ideas and issues that may be at odds with established interests,” reads a July 13 letter  to the Board of Governors sighed by more than 600 law professors from across the country.

It’s not the first time that a law school has come under fire from university administrators or lawmakers over its court activity. In fact, it’s not even the first time in recent memory that UNC Law has found itself in the crosshairs of the Republican-controlled Board of Governors. That body voted in 2015 to strip funding from the law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. That center remains open, though renamed and funded through private donations.

In 2012, a Maryland lawmaker threatened to cut the budget of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law after its environmental clinic sued a local chicken farmer that supplies Perdue Farms Inc. on the grounds that law schools should not file suits that hurt local businesses.

Legislators in Louisiana in 2010 considered a bill that would prohibit law clinics in the state from suing a government agency or seeking monetary damages from an individual or business. The bill never made it out of committee.

The text of the proposal submitted by the Board of Governor’s Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs under consideration in North Carolina does not explicitly name the law school’s Center for Civil Rights. Rather, it would bar any center or institute within the University of North Carolina System from filing lawsuits or employing any legal counsel to do so. (Law school clinics would be exempt from the rule.) UNC has about 240 such centers and institutes in existence, but the law school’s Center for Civil Rights is the only one that currently litigates cases. All the discussion of the proposal thus far has focused on the civil rights center.

That center opened in 2001 under the direction of famed North Carolina civil rights attorney Julius Chambers. It conducts research on civil rights issues, performs community outreach and education, and brings litigation on behalf of clients who are often low-income or minorities. The center, which is funded through private donations, employs three attorneys. It hires law students as summer interns, who assist in research and on lawsuits, according to lengthy  report on its activities conducted by campus administrators and released in May.

The center’s most vocal critic is Steven B. Long, a Raleigh tax attorney and Republican who sits on the Board of Governors. Long has previously clashed with North Carolina law professor Gene Nichol, a liberal who pens op-eds critical of state Republican leaders and who was dean of the law school when the civil rights center was established.

Long introduced the proposal to ban litigation in February, and told the News & Observer newspaper this month that he was motivated in part by a federal lawsuit the center brought against local school board. A school board member told Long the district had to use $500,000 from its textbook fund to defend itself.

“I thought, how in the world could this happen?” Long told the News & Observer. “I mean, that doesn’t sound right. And it was full-time lawyers suing them. It wasn’t law students. That’s what caused me to start investigating.”

Long urged fellow board members to adopt the proposal in a July 8 memo, saying the Center for Civil Rights’ activities should instead be housed in an independent organization not attached to the university. The current setup “opens the door” for center attorneys to further their personal agendas, he wrote.

Carol Folt, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote to the Board of Governors the day before the committee meeting to warn that adopting the proposal would likely force the closure of the center and have ramifications beyond that.

“If the committee moves forward with the new proposed policy, we risk significant damage to the reputation of the University and the Law School, as well as uncertainty as to whether we can even create a new clinic for civil rights with no resources,” Folt wrote.

 

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ