Opinion

Defending civil rights center

The dean of the School of Law at the University of North Carolina has pushed back hard and persuasively — at least to us — against a Board of Governors proposal to curtail the activities of the school’s Center for Civil Rights.

Some members of the system’s governing board have objected to the center — or any of the school’s centers or institutes — representing clients in suits against state or local governments. But that work is vital, argues law school Dean Martin Brinkley, and banning such work would harm the university.

The ban “interferes with and diminishes the quality of the intellectual environment, not just at the law school but in the university as a whole, in ways from which the institution will not soon recover,” Brinkley wrote in a letter UNC-Chapel Hill officials included with a 56-page response to the proposed legal-aid ban. “The proposal will do great damage to one of North Carolina’s most treasured assets: a great state university.”

The center’s detractors on the Board of Governors have raised concerns about the cost to taxpayers to defend against such litegation as a school desegregation suit in Pitt County. But that sort of action is an integral part of the center’s mission, the university’s response argued.

Clients of the center are likely to be black and low-income families in eastern North Carolina — marginalized populations likely to be the victims of government neglect, indifference or punitive policy. With legal aid funding sharply reduced in recent years and too many in the legal profession shunninig pro-bono work, those clients are in particular need of the center’s advocacy and representation, the university said.

“Vindicating promised rights in court is what lawyers do,” Brinkley noted in his letter.

The real-world experience taking such cases provides its law students are important and typically provided by most of the school’s peer institutions, the university argues. And having taken on those cases, the students are obligated to provide as powerful a case as possible, no matter whether that ultimately targets other governmental units.

“Lawyers are not expected to represent the interests of their clients’ adversaries,” the university’s memo said. “Instead, it is their duty to represent their own clients zealously. It would be unethical to do anything less.”

Brinkley and his university colleagues have offered a powerful argument for the benefits of the center’s work to law students and to North Carolina citizens who depend on its legal aid to protect their rights. The board of governors, we hope, will listen carefully to the case for the center’s continued existence and its diligent work, and will refrain from any action to stifle it.

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