UNC Civil Rights Center punished for biased litigation

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill recently voted to prevent its Civil Rights Center from participating in litigation after accusations that employees pursued “personal causes” when doing so.

Steven B. Long, tax attorney and member of UNC’s Board of Governors, wrote a February 14 memorandum to the Board’s Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs (CEPPP), in which he proposed a policy change that would prevent all academic centers and institutes from litigating.

“UNC has a three-fold mission: teaching, research, and service to the State,” Long wrote, arguing that it’s not UNC’s place to “initiate a lawsuit against” state or local governments, but rather to “advise the government of the legal requirements so that they can be met.”

The memorandum goes on to note that the employees of the Civil Rights Center were “government-funded lawyers” with “little incentive to resolve claims and significant incentive to litigate.”

“Academic centers are not structured to operate as litigation centers,” he argued, partially because they lack oversight bodies to regulate litigation and determine where it “advances the personal causes and interests of center personnel rather than UNC’s educational mission.”

Alternatively, Long suggests that “internships at private law firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and law school legal clinics” provide students with sufficient “real world litigation experience,” adding that “academic centers are not law school clinics.”

In fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) regulates to ensure that it provides classroom training and that “students, not full-time lawyers, are the ones primarily representing clients.”

As a result of the debate, the CEPPP solicited input on the policy, submitting a “revised proposal” on July 8 that exempted law clinics from Long’s restriction. While the proposal did not name any specific centers or institutes, the Civil Rights Center is the only UNC center that practiced litigation at the time.

On its website, the center declares its commitment to “the advancement of civil rights and social justice” through “inclusion-based legal advocacy,” including “representation, advocacy, research and, when necessary, litigation.”

In response to Long’s claims, the c enter released a March 23 statement disputing his points, claiming  that the dean of the law school provided sufficient oversight for its activities and that it operated under ABA standards.

The statement then blamed the government for “unnecessarily prolonged” litigation and other costs incurred in relation to the center’s activities, saying it funded its activities using private donations.

As a result, faculty, students, and outside organizations accused Long and the Board of a partisan attack on academic freedom.

Attorney and Professor of Law Robert Steinbuch told Campus Reform that while academic freedom is obviously concern, Long and his supporters have legitimate points, noting that some organizations engage in “impact litigation,” which seeks to bring about “quasi-legislative changes” through the courts.

Steinbuch added that although it is possible to create a completely privately-funded institution within a public law school, such a task is difficult and improbable, saying the Board may have had reason to step in.

Indeed, on April 1, the committee voted to approve a revised version of the proposal after an emotional discussion in which the board overwhelmingly approved the litigation ban on September 8.

Immediately following the vote, an audience member began to voice his objections, shouting “You’re out of order. You’re out of order!”

Outside of the meeting, protesters chanted “If we don't get no justice, then you don't get no peace,” and a center employee yelled in the face of a departing Board member.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @SFarkas48