An advocacy group that also serves as a training vehicle for law students at UNC-Chapel Hill may come screeching to a halt by order of university system officials.
That group is the UNC Center for Civil Rights, whose mission was summarized in comments made by Director Ted Shaw to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday.
“Since 2001, it has represented black, brown, poor people in North Carolina with respect to issues of racial justice, economic equity, and it does work that, I think, serves the state and the country,” he affirmed.
The center fulfills a dual purpose of providing legal representation for minority groups while giving law students an opportunity to gain experience with actual litigation.
That litigation has caused the UNC Board of Governors to ask whether an enclave of lawyers in the university system should be allowed to try cases in official capacity.
“The BOG is attempting to stop the center from litigating, and that would effectively mean it would gut the center,” explained Shaw.
Council members also heard from managing attorney Mark Dorosin on the extent to which the center focuses on issues that concern residents of Chapel Hill.
“The center, for a long time, has represented the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association in their struggles for environmental justice,” he noted. “We’ve also worked extensively with the Jackson Center, the RENA Center, with EmPowerment on issues related to housing, making sure people have access to wills so people can preserve the land that they have — so we certainly have a local aspect.”
According to Dorosin, those issues are addressed by lawyers at the center who receive no financial assistance or compensation from the state government.
“We get no state money at the UNC Center for Civil Rights,” he emphasized. “All of the money that we use has to be raised privately from foundations, from grants, and from individual supporters.”
Despite the fiscal independence of the center, Steve Long of the UNC Board of Governors maintains that “suing the state and its municipalities violates the mission of the university.”
Lawsuits involving those entities were filed three years ago by the center when it represented the plaintiffs in Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education.
The type of representation provided by the center led Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger to applaud its intentions, regardless of the politics that surround it.
“We are very supportive of making sure that everyone is represented well and has access to good representation,” she stated. “We appreciate the work you do; we know it’s hard, but we’re glad you’re fighting the good fight.”
The Chapel Hill Town Council voted unanimously to affirm its support for the UNC Center for Civil Rights ahead of a comment session scheduled for this Thursday.
The session is open to the public and will take place at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development on Friday Center Drive from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM.
Photo by Dan Sears/UNC.