A much-anticipated public hearing on the future of the UNC Center for Civil Rights was held on Thursday.

Advocates for the UNC Center for Civil Rights with yellow arm bands packed a board room at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development on Thursday supporting the work of the center.

A proposal was put forward by a member of the Board of Governors that would cut the center’s power to litigate cases.

Elizabeth Haddix is an attorney at the center, and she said the work being done by the center has led to the American Bar Association requiring experiential learning for new graduates.

The new ABA standards “mandate that a law school provide substantial opportunities for experiential learning, as well as opportunities to participate in pro bono legal services and public service activities,” Haddix said. “The center provides all of that.”

Haddix pointed to a situation where litigation was the final option for a group of residents in Stokes County. Haddix said a majority-white town approved energy drilling in a predominately African-American neighborhood. Haddix added the neighborhood was in the extraterritorial jurisdiction and therefore did not have the right to vote in municipal elections. She said students helped in every phased of the lawsuit brought by the residents.

Managing attorney for the center Mark Dorosin reiterated that the center works on behalf of clients and does not bring any litigation itself.

“And like all lawyers,” Dorosin said, “we represent them zealously, diligently and ethically and are honored to do so.”

Dorosin added that the center does not receive any state funding.

Ted Shaw is the center’s director. He said the civil rights attorneys at the center represented approximately 130 years of experience. He said that was a benefit to the center, residents of the state and the students working under those attorneys.

“The director and the staff bring that expertise to the task of training law students to run their leg of the race in terms of civil rights representation,” Shaw said.

But Shaw and other advocates, including students who had interned at the center, said what was taught at the center extended well beyond civil rights law.

Representatives from the North Carolina Central Law School’s clinics also told the board the proposal would cripple the university’s ability to produce practice-ready lawyers.

Other speakers said this proposal would infringe on the academic freedom of the two public universities in the state with law schools.

Of the approximately two dozen speakers at the public hearing, none spoke in favor of the proposal.

The Board of Governors is not likely to vote on the proposal before its July meeting in Asheville.

Photo via Blake Hodge