Commentary, News

UNC Center for Civil Rights sets the record straight in response to Board of Governors’ attack

As was explained in this post late last month, conservative members of the UNC Board of Governors are seeking to muzzle and cripple the Center for Civil Rights that’s a part of the UNC School of Law at Chapel Hill. This week the Center staff shared a detailed response to the BOG with NC Policy Watch that we’re happy to publish below in its entirety:

CLARIFYING THE RECORD

Context & Corrections to the BOG memo on the UNC Center for Civil Rights

Claim: The Center for Civil Rights has no oversight to ensure that it pursues UNC’s educational mission rather than the “personal causes and interests of center personnel.”

Fact: The Executive Director of the Center is a tenured member of the law school faculty and oversees the work of the Center, including its direct representation and advocacy. Additionally, before any litigation can commence, Center staff must submit a justification memo to the Dean of the Law School. The Center cannot engage in litigation without the Dean’s approval.

Claim: Center for Civil Rights staff “are government-funded lawyers,” who have “little incentive to resolve claims and significant incentive to litigate.”

Fact: Although categorized as state employees, Center staff salaries and benefits—as well as all programmatic costs and expenses—are funded by grants, foundations, and private gifts and donations. All direct advocacy engaged in by the Center is on behalf of clients—low-wealth individuals, families, and communities across North Carolina– whose priorities, rights, and interests determine the trajectory of any litigation.

Over half of the cases filed by the Center in the past 9 years were resolved by negotiated settlement. In one of those cases, it was the “government-funded” lawyers retained by the county that unnecessarily prolonged the litigation, filing two interim appeals that delayed the case for over a year, and were ultimately dismissed by the appellate court.

Claim: Law school clinics, unlike the Center for Civil Rights, “provide law students with hands-on legal training through representation of clients,” operate under ABA standards, and focus on educating law school students.

Fact: ABA guidelines require that students get “live-client or other real-life practice experiences, appropriately supervised and designed to encourage reflection by students on their experiences and on the values and responsibilities of the legal profession, and the development of one’s ability to assess his or her performance and level of competence.” There is no formal “in-class” requirement for clinics. 

Since its founding, the Center has directly supervised over 600 students through externships, internships, and pro bono projects. Students learn experientially how to practice law through direct involvement in research, drafting complaints, motions and briefs, conducting discovery, and interviewing clients.  Staff provides substantial supervision, mentorship, and feedback to support students’ personal and professional development.

  • “My summer at the Center for Civil Rights was a marked highlight of my time at Carolina. I feel I learned more about the practice of law in those few months than I did at any other point in my education. . . . I was exposed to numerous types of suits and legal advocacy that I did not experience at other internships or in the classroom. I received hands on training with complex discovery, investigation, client relations, and crafting pleadings.”
  • “I was an intern at the Center when I first wrote sections of legal briefs. These were not the graded writing exercises designed to teach me how to craft a legal argument, but advocacy that would end up before a court. I was an intern at the Center when I conducted my first hours of document review. This was not a Civil Procedure class explaining the discovery process to me, but time spent mining documents. I was an intern at the Center when I had my first interactions with clients. This is a skill that no professor can teach in a classroom and is far more complex in reality than any course could cover.”
  • “CCR gave me the experience I needed to obtain an amazing job after law school. I am now an Assistant District Attorney in New York City, County of the Bronx, and I would not be there without the advocacy and litigation training I obtained during my semester externship.”

Claim: If the State or a local government fails to comply with a legal requirement, UNC should advise those governments so that legal requirements can be met. Pitt County and Brunswick County spent thousands of dollars in litigation brought by the Center for Civil Rights.

Fact: The Pitt County Board of Education had been under a federal court desegregation order since the early 1970s. Litigation was re-opened in 2007 when a group of white parents claimed the district was discriminating against their children by continuing to pursue integration.  African American parents represented by the Center joined that case on the side of the school board, defending its actions pursuant to the existing court orders, and were instrumental in reaching a favorable settlement for the board in 2009. Two years later, when the board reversed its position and adopted a resegregative student assignment plan, the Center’s clients challenged that action and litigation recommenced.

When Brunswick County rezoned land in the historic African American Royal Oak community to expand its landfill, residents represented by the Center filed a legal challenge to comply with the 90-day statute of limitations for such cases.  While the case was pending, the county moved forward to secure a special exception permit to build the landfill from the county planning board.  At the planning board hearings, Parker Poe (the firm in which BOG member Steve Long is a partner) represented the county; the Center represented residents of Royal Oak. The planning board, which is made up of community residents appointed by the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, rejected the special exception permit.

Additionally, although both these governments retain full-time counsel, each was represented by outside attorneys paid through government liability policies.  These liability policies, as well as the salaries of in-house counsel, are paid for by taxpayers in those communities. As a result, the people the Center represents are paying for the lawyers that are actively working against them.

Claim: UNC has a three-fold mission: teaching, research, and service to the State. The advocacy work of the Center for Civil Rights violates that mission.

Fact: The Center of Civil Rights has a nearly identical three-fold mission:

  • To educate and train law students to ensure future generations of attorneys are equipped to continue the ongoing campaign to secure fair and equal opportunities for under-resourced individuals, families, and communities;
  • To provide research and public education on public policies at local, state, and national levels, and to develop innovative, effective, and sustainable programs that address racial and economic inequality; and
  • To represent, educate, and advocate for minority and low-income people, principally in the American South, in order to build their capacity to address inequities and to improve their communities.

Like the University’s mission, these three elements are integrally connected, and to attempt to sever any one of them would undermine the effectiveness of each, as well as their collective impact. The Center’s work over the past decade has epitomized and made real the University’s mission for hundreds of students and thousands of North Carolina residents.

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