N.C. Supreme Court sides with Center for Civil Rights clients in eugenics case

Their future ability to represent clients might be under threat, but lawyers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights got to celebrate Friday after winning a N.C. Supreme Court case on behalf of the families of three victims of the state’s old forced-sterilization program.

Via a unanimous opinion penned by Justice Barbara Jackson, one of its three Republicans, the high court ordered the N.C. Court of Appeals to consider and decide whether the eugenics compensation program state legislators set up in 2013 violated the families’ rights for including a provision that said only victims still alive as of that summer were eligible to receive payments from it.

The Court of Appeals had previously refused to weigh in, citing a 2015 state law that in its view denied it jurisdiction. Jackson and her colleagues disagreed with its take on the jurisdiction law.

Friday’s ruling came about two weeks after UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school dean, Martin Brinkley, suspended the Center for Civil Rights’ ability to take on new cases pending the outcome of a policy review by the campus administration and ultimately the UNC system’s Board of Governors. A group of board members argues the center and others like it shouldn’t be allowed to represent clients.

The center’s managing director, Mark Dorosin, had joined colleague Elizabeth Haddix in arguing the eugenics case before the state Supreme Court and said the ruling “to be sure” is a morale-booster for its staff.

“Given that we’re in this moment where the the very nature of the advocacy we engage in is under attack, it’s certainly refreshing to see that here, the Supreme Court has agreed the claims we brought on behalf of these clients are valid and that they should have their day in court,” Dorosin said.

He and Haddix argued the case in front of the justices in mid-February, scarcely two weeks before Board of Governors member Steve Long asked the board to issue a policy directive barring university-organized centers and institutes from representing clients.

Long’s move resurrected an argument the board had appeared to settle in 2015 when it didn’t put the Center for Civil Rights on a list of campus centers and institutes it ordered closed that year. Then and now, he’s argued that UNC-sponsored lawyers shouldn’t be able to sue state and local government under the university’s flag, and cited the center’s role in a long-running and ultimately unsuccessful Pitt County school desegregation lawsuit as an example of how it can cause governments to waste money.

His board colleagues in 2015 disagreed, arguing that the center does valuable work and is a training ground for law students. But this time around, Long’s view appears to have more backing, and there have been hints that legislative pressure is behind it.

The eugenics-compensation program, ironically, is one of the flagship legislative achievements of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. The Mecklenburg County Republican helped push it through the N.C. General Assembly when he was speaker of the state House. Joining a cause long advocated by former state Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, he argued that the forced-sterilization program the state operated into the 1970s had been a gross misuse of government power, one that merited restitution to its victims.

Despite Tillis’ backing, the proposal split the Republican caucus in the General Assembly and the terms of the bill that eventually passed weren’t particularly generous. One was the provision now in dispute, which said the state would only pay if a victim was still alive as of June 30, 2013.

The center’s clients are families of two women and a man who died in 1996, 2006 and 2010. Dorosin and Haddix argue that law’s time restriction violates constitutional equal-protection and due-process guarantees.

Dorosin said the Center for Civil Rights got involved in the compensation program early, after its staff noticed the General Assembly hadn’t given the special office it set up to run it much money for publicity.

“We reached out to that office and said, ‘How can we help?’” Dorosin said, recounting that the center had offered to use its contacts to spread the word and inform people “of their rights and eligibility.”

He added that he thinks its work ultimately enabled “several dozen” people to file claims and secure compensation who otherwise might not have.

In refusing to consider the families’ claim last year, a Court of Appeals panel ruled that a law the General Assembly passed in 2015 dictates that constitutional challenges to state law have to first go through a special, three-judge Superior Court tribunal in Wake County. But the panel split on the critical jurisdictional point 2-1, the two judges in the majority being its two Democrats and the dissenter its lone Republican, Judge Chris Dillon.

The Supreme Court, speaking through Jackson, agreed with Dillon that the 2015 jurisdiction law didn’t take away from the Court of Appeals the authority to weigh in on matters on appeal from a state regulatory board. Rather, she said, the 2015 law addressed cases that originate in the court system.

Dorosin said he and Haddix had hoped the high court would settle the underlying constitutional questions, but are content with a procedural ruling that gets their clients through the courthouse door.

“We’re very grateful those merits are going to be considered now,” he said of Friday’s ruling.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg