Orange County

Center for Civil Rights lawyers have been fired ahead of schedule

How would a ban on UNC's Center for Civil Rights affect the university's reputation?

Video: Protesters greeted members of a UNC Board of Governors committee before their meeting today in which they voted 5-1 to approve a proposal banning the UNC Center for Civil Rights from representing clients and litigating. Inside the meeting,
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Video: Protesters greeted members of a UNC Board of Governors committee before their meeting today in which they voted 5-1 to approve a proposal banning the UNC Center for Civil Rights from representing clients and litigating. Inside the meeting,

UNC-Chapel Hill officials sacked the staff attorneys of its law school’s Center for Civil Rights on Thursday, more than six weeks ahead of schedule.

One of the lawyers, Managing Attorney Mark Dorosin, told his Facebook followers that the law school had “accelerated his termination” on the advice of the university’s counsel, Mark Merritt.

He and senior staff lawyer Elizabeth Haddix had previously been told their “at-will” employment at UNC would end as of Jan. 12. Other social media postings indicated that Thursday’s action also applied to Haddix.

Neither could be reached immediately for comment.

The university is under orders from the UNC system Board of Governors to end the legal-aid work of the Center for Civil Rights. It has represented clients in a variety of causes, including school desegregation, hog-farm pollution and eugenics-program compensation.

UNC officials didn’t deny Dorosin’s report, and in fact tied the move to a recent advisory from a N.C. State Bar that said the center isn’t authorized to practice law.

“The university has been working to wind down the advocacy and litigation work of the Center for Civil Rights since the Board of Governors’ September decision,” UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said. “Following the recent action by the State Bar, [law school] dean [Martin] Brinkley informed the law school that work would be accelerated.”

UNC-CH “is grateful for the service of Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix during their time with the center,” she added.

Critics of the center argued that a law-school-affiliated center has no business representing clients in court disputes that often have political overtones. Its supporters countered that the school and the center are both in business of training lawyers, who by definition and ethical rule have to represent clients zealously and sometimes engage in litigation.

The center’s director, UNC-CH law professor Ted Shaw, echoed Peter Denny in saying the move’s tied to the State Bar committee opinion.

Once it came down, “it was the view of the university counsel’s office and the law school, meaning the dean, that the center could not continue to have the legal-advocacy wing of the center at the law school,” Shaw said. “It certainly couldn’t engage in any more practice of law or representing clients.”

The bar opinion apparently overrode, in the minds of UNC-CH administrators, a section of the Board of Governors decision that say the ban on legal work would “not apply” to still-pending litigation that predated the system order.

Shaw said he expects Dorosin and Haddix will find a way to continue their work outside of UNC’s umbrella. The center itself is working with Brinkley “to commit ourselves to re-tooling it” to “focus on research and publication, to continue to work on the issues of race, economic and racial inequality, and the law.”

He added that his “unhappiness” over the matter targets the BOG and the State Bar, the latter of which produced an opinion he continues “puzzling, at best.”

The BOG’s closure order has been controversial since Board of Governors member Steve Long proposed it early this year, and has inspired harsh words on both sides.

After the law school gave Dorosin and Haddix their original, Jan. 12 termination notices, Long called Dorosin, who’s also the chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners “a political hack,” a comment noteworthy because Long is an appointed member of the BOG who has never held elective office.

A number of other board members have held elective office, including its chairman, former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, former state Sen. Bob Rucho, former state Sen. Thom Goolsby, former state Rep. Leo Daughtry, former state Rep. Pearl Burris-Floyd and former Rutherford County Sheriff Philip Byers.

Dorosin hasn’t hesitated to respond in kind, including with a “you’re out of order” comment at the decisive BOG meeting borrowed from an Al Pacino movie.

Politically, Dorosin is a relatively popular figure in Orange County, having won three different elections to a single term on Carrboro’s Board of Alderman and two on the County Commissioners. The news of his firing promptly drew criticism from supporters.

“This is so disgraceful,” said Chris Moran, former executive director of the Chapel Hill-based Interfaith Council for Social Service. “Those who fight for justice, fairness and rightful representation always get shafted because they are a threat to those in power. Mark deserves better and certainly our gratitude and respect.”