A N.C. Supreme Court ruling last week that determined that families of three victims of the state’s now defunct but long-running forced-sterilization program could receive compensation from the state was certainly a welcome victory for those families.
It might also prove to be a well-time reminder of the value to some of our most powerless citizens of a legal center that is under threat. The families’ case was handled by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights, which successfully argued that it was unfair that only victims still alive in 2013, when the legislature created the compensation program, could receive the payments.
As it happens, the significant court victory came only weeks after UNC law school dean Martin Brinkley, responding to concerns by at least some of the UNC system’s board of governors, suspended the civil rights center from taking on new cases.
Board member Steve Long and others argue it is wrong for the state-supported center to sue state and local governments. Such action strays from the university’s academic mission and, especially in a Pitt County desegregation lawsuit that has drawn critics’ fire, can cost governments substantial money in defending against the litigation.
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The timing of the eugenics-case victory – a program that lasted into the 1970s and forced many women, often poor and poorly represented, to be sterilized – was not lost on Mark Dorosin, the center’s managing director.
“Given that we’re in this moment where the very nature of the advocacy we engage in is under attack, it is 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 in the wake of the court’s decision.
Dorosin and his colleagues had gotten involved in the case brought by the three families of deceased victims of the sterilization program early on when he realized the state office running the compensation program had little money for publicity.
“We reached out to that office and said, ‘How can we help?’” Dorosin said. He thinks his office’s involvement enabled “several dozen” people to file claims who might not otherwise have been able to seek compensation they deserved.
The upshot of the center’s involvement might be seen as costing governments time and money, but a better perspective is that it has helped justice to be done for people for whom it often is a rarity. In addition to the legal training the center provides for law students, that seems a powerful reason to keep the center alive and engaged in litigation.