In North Carolina, the conservative war on academia merges with its war on the poor and vulnerable

By: - February 28, 2017 5:00 am


Right launches new attack on UNC legal centers that serve people in need

For several years now, North Carolina conservatives have been waging a war on the poor, the vulnerable and people of color. From the evisceration of the economic safety net and the refusal to expand Medicaid, to the “surgically precise” attack on minority voting rights and the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the attacks have been regular, coordinated and destructive.

Sadly, a similar pattern has been evident in the world of academics too. From Pat McCrory’s absurd attacks on liberal arts education to the decision to forcibly remove the highly respected former President of the University of North Carolina, Tom Ross, to the sustained under-investment in community colleges and universities, the Right has treated academia as an enemy to be starved, tamed and conquered.

Now, as if all of these attacks and the damage they have inflicted weren’t enough, conservatives have apparently decided to double down by merging the two efforts. Reporter Ray Gronberg of the Durham Herald-Sun has the story:

A proposal headed to the UNC system’s Board of Governors would bar public university centers and institutes in North Carolina from providing legal representation to clients in any sort of litigation.

The broadly worded measure, submitted to the board’s education policy committee in a memo credited to member Joe Knott, would almost certainly affect organizations like the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights.

The Center for Civil Rights has provided support, counsel or other aid in a variety of cases involving school desegregation, voting rights and compensation for victims of the state’s former forced-sterilization program….

[Knott’s proposal] forbids centers and institutes from filing ‘a complaint, motion, lawsuit or other legal claim,’ in its own name or for others, ‘against any individual, entity or government.’

Moreover, they wouldn’t be able to ‘act as legal counsel to any third party,’ employ people who do, or arrange for someone’s representation.

As worded, it would apparently forbid the system’s law schools, at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University, from setting up or operating centers or institutes to help out with such things as the Innocence Project.”

The proposal is, in short, a right-wing ideological twofer. Not only will the proposal further diminish the already extremely limited opportunities that exist for the poor, the vulnerable and people of color in North Carolina to see their basic rights vindicated; it has the added, bonus impact of further ridding the university system of programs that might actually teach and inspire students to pursue careers that are about expanding rights and serving others.

A troubling and longstanding conservative tradition

Of course, the idea of attacking, defunding and restricting legal assistance programs like the Center for Civil Rights and others impacted by the new UNC proposal is nothing new for the American conservative movement. At the national level, ideologues on the right have waged war on publicly funded legal aid programs for decades. Back in the 1960’s, California Governor Ronald Reagan did his utmost to attack the attorneys of California Rural Legal Assistance – a shoestring operation of anti-poverty lawyers that had the temerity to stand up for the rights of poor farmworkers who were exploited by big agribusiness. In 1995, Newt Gingrich made it part of his so-called “Contract with America” to defund and restrict legal aid providers.

And so it has gone ever since – especially when the legal assistance program in question does anything other than simply represent individual clients on what one might describe as a “soup kitchen basis.” Ideologues on the right may be willing to allow a handful of under-resourced lawyers to represent a tiny fraction of the poor with deserving individual legal cases – be they related to domestic violence or landlord-tenant disputes or, say, a high-interest small loan. But if a legal aid program gets serious about making a real and measurable impact by suing to vindicate the rights of a large group of wronged workers or voters or tenants, or God forbid, working to change a law or its public enforcement so that the lives of a large group of people are enhanced, ideologues on the right will be sure to take political action to stop them.

And so it is with the latest attack in North Carolina. Again, here’s reporter Ray Gronberg:

At least one board member, Steve Long…criticized [the Center’s] involvement in a protracted school-desegregation lawsuit in Pitt County, arguing the pursuit of the case forced officials there to spend taxpayer money on a defense….

More recently, Center for Civil Rights staffers have cheered on a voting-rights lawsuit in Jones County — a locale represented in the N.C. General Assembly by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow.

And this month, two of its attorneys, UNC Law School adjunct professors Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin, argued three N.C. Supreme Court appeals on behalf of persons denied compensation the state’s made available to some victims of its former “eugenics” forced-sterilization program.”

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump’s first budget proposal would do away with federal funding for legal services altogether.

Proposal would be far reaching; could impact legal aid to military vets

That the Center for Civil Rights finds itself as the chief target for the new attack is an especially noxious but unsurprising development. The Center is a tiny, but amazingly effective operation. In addition to bringing and winning all kinds of important cases on behalf of poor people and people of color who would have no other realistic way to find or afford attorneys to represent them, the Center is a living legacy to one of the state’s greatest champions for civil rights, the late, great Julius Chambers. This from the “About us” section of the Center’s website:

Since its founding by Julius L. Chambers (1936-2013) in 2001, the UNC Center for Civil Rights has strived to extend America’s promise of justice, prosperity and opportunity by elevating families and communities above the boundaries of race, class and place. Its mission is to use community-based impact advocacy and legal education and scholarship to advance strategies that secure social, economic and environmental justice for low wealth, minority families and neighborhoods.”

Other excellent groups could be impacted too. As drafted, the new proposal would bar any UNC “center or institute” from filing “a complaint, motion, lawsuit or other legal claim in its own name or on behalf of any individual or entity against any individual, entity, or government or otherwise act as legal counsel to any third party” or from employing or engaging anyone to take such action.

Though “center” is not defined in the proposal, it clearly reaches beyond the Civil Rights Center and could endanger some other extremely beneficial efforts to give law students “hands on” experience, while also serving the public. Take the Veterans Law Clinic at N.C. Central University, for example. For nearly a decade, the Clinic has been fighting on behalf of military veterans in any number of important cases and venues as they struggle against bureaucracy to win vindication of their basic rights. The clinic gets students “involved directly in veterans cases at all stages of the VA claims adjudication process, including judicial review.”

In other words, like the Center for Civil Rights, the NCCU Veterans Clinic is about expanding rights and serving the powerless – all while educating and empowering students to bust the prevailing image of lawyers in our society. It’s no wonder that conservative ideologues would be offended. If it is not covered by the proposal, there’s no real logic to the distinction and if it is covered, it would be another outrageous injustice.

The bottom line: The latest attack on the UNC centers is the byproduct of an extreme ideology that views both higher education and publicly-funded lawyers for poor people as dangerously subversive phenomena. If anything, it’s surprising that it took the proponents so long to launch their latest broadside.

Note: The UNC Board of Governors’ Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs will meet this Thursday March 2 at 1:00 p.m. to consider the new proposal. Click here to learn more. Those interested in speaking out on the matter can email their views to the Board at [email protected].

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.