CHAPEL HILL (July 26, 2017) – With a UNC Board of Governors committee poised to act next week on a proposal to forbid the UNC Center for Civil Rights to file lawsuits,1 just how unusual is it for a law school to have a civil rights center that engages in litigation?
Critics of the center contend one arm of state government shouldn’t be allowed to sue another, as the UNC center has in some cases in eastern North Carolina. The center’s supporters counter that experiential learning is a vital part of training future lawyers, the center receives no tax dollars, and government itself sometimes perpetuates discrimination and must be held accountable.
There’s been a move among law schools in recent decades to increase experiential education – to let law students practice what they will eventually practice.
There are varying degrees of involvement – among public law schools, a survey by the Higher Education Works Foundation found at least eight that appear actively involved in litigation, three that limit themselves to academic research, and several where students might be exposed to civil-rights cases through pro bono programs where they work under the supervision of a licensed attorney:
- In January 2017, with a grant from the Jesse Bell duPont Fund, the University of Virginia School of Law established a pro bono clinic where it says students will gain practical experience working on civil rights and racial justice cases under the supervision of attorneys with Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center.2
- The University of Michigan Law School operates the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, which collects and organizes voluminous documents from civil rights cases3 but does not offer legal advice or referrals.4 Michigan is tied with Virginia for the 8th-best law school in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.5 But Michigan was faulted in at least one civil-rights ranking “because it offers very few clinic and externship opportunities.”6
- The Civil Rights Project at UCLA engages in research and advocacy, and its research has been cited in Supreme Court opinions.7 The Project has a Center for Civil Rights Remedies that files lawsuits and administrative complaints against local school boards.8
- The Levin College of Law at the University of Florida has a Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations. The center focuses on academic research and curriculum development but does not appear to engage in litigation.9
- The 14th-ranked University of Texas School of Law has a Civil Rights Clinic where students represent low-income clients.10
- The University of Tennessee College of Law does not have a civil rights center. But the college has seen “incredible” growth in its pro bono program, where students work with licensed attorneys to represent indigent clients. “UT Pro Bono is constantly searching for new projects to reach traditionally underserved groups in need,” the College says.11 In addition, the school has an Advocacy Clinic that “functions like a law firm,” where students represent clients in a variety of legal disputes.12
- The University of Wisconsin Law School has both a “law-in-action” program at the Frank J. Remington Center13 and the Economic Justice Institute, which is “dedicated to serving low-income and other under-represented clients in matters designed to enhance access to justice and economic security.”14
- The University of Minnesota Law School has a Human Rights Litigation and International Advocacy Clinic.15
- The University of South Carolina School of Law does not have a civil rights center. But it does boast the nation’s first pro bono legal program where students work under the supervision of a licensed attorney to help clients who cannot afford legal help.16
- The University of Georgia School of Law does not have a civil-rights center. But it recently announced a record 36 students will spend this summer in public interest fellowships.17 In 2013, Georgia’s School of Social Work established an interdisciplinary Center for Social Justice, Human and Civil Rights.18
- The 12th-ranked University of California, Berkeley School of Law has 13 clinics where students do hands-on casework for clients.19
- The North Carolina Central University School of Law has a Civil Litigation Clinic where students participate in cases that include consumer protection and civil rights. The clinic represents people with housing discrimination claims, and it currently represents prisoners in a federal civil-rights action challenging prison conditions in Western North Carolina.20 The school also has a pro bono program where students work directly with practicing attorneys.21
- A number of law schools at private universities, including 2nd-ranked Stanford,22 Duke,23 Georgetown,24 Notre Dame,25 Seton Hall,26 Howard,27 Case Western Reserve28 and 6th-ranked New York University,29 have civil or human rights centers or clinics. Not all participate in litigation, however. Duke Law, ranked 10th by U.S. News,30 says the 11 clinics housed in a wing of the law school operate “collectively as a public interest law firm.”31
We present this information so that you can draw your own conclusion: Is a civil rights center that files lawsuits an oddity in modern legal education?