In North Carolina, Open Season on Poverty Advocates

by Victor Flatt

Today I joined a group more than 40 environmental law professors and clinicians from institutions around the nation in a joint letter to the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors urging that they reject a recommendation to shutter the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, housed at the University of North Carolina Law School. That unfortunate recommendation arose from a special committee created by the board at the direction of the legislature to review all 237 of the state university system’s centers, in the wake of criticism of state anti-poverty efforts by the Center’s director, Professor Gene Nichol.

To be clear, the Center takes no money from the state, and hasn’t since 2009. It’s funded by private contributions. It’s being targeted not to save money, but because some in the legislature would rather not have to be reminded of poverty, and don’t have the stomach for criticism of their policies. And since Professor Nichol’s criticisms were a trigger for the special committee’s review, it’s no surprise that the committee has taken aim at the Center.

I’m not directly affiliated with the Center, but our Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR) at UNC Law has been looking to work with both the Poverty Center and the Carolina Law School’s Center for Civil Rights to try and address how to minimize the disparate impacts on the poor and minorities from climate change that are going to happen at the North Carolina coast.  But aside from my belief that the Poverty Center has much to contribute to advancement of environmental protection, I and my environmental colleagues around the country are writing because we find it hard to sit by while legislators seek to muzzle their critics in academia. Here’s what we say in the letter:

We represent a national group of environmental law professors and clinicians from over forty public and private law schools.  Our discipline has faced similar politically motivated criticisms in the past, and will likely do so again in the future.  We urge the North Carolina Board of Governors, and all regulators of institutes of higher education, to reject basing university decisions on the popularity of political positions.  We come to this position based on important experience in our environmental legal field.

While most of the nation and our leaders publicly support environmental protection by large majorities, when the promises and requirements of these environmental laws need to be enforced, it often falls to law schools to take up the cause.  Indeed, our environmental laws are written to explicitly provide for “citizen enforcement” when the federal and state governments can’t or won’t do so.

Beyond filling enforcement gaps and examining important issues about existing and future environmental laws and policies, we believe that practical experience in environmental centers and clinics is good for law students, helping them to blend theory and practice and develop a richer understanding of what it means to be a lawyer.  This not only vindicates existing environmental laws, which were passed by large bipartisan majorities, but also provides a practical education to our students interested in working in the environmental law sphere.  While most of them will not end up representing non-paying clients, they will need to rely on the skills they receive at our schools concerning the administrative process, litigation, and substantive knowledge of environmental law.

As with the Poverty Center, much of our work involves representing the least powerful in our society.  Particularly in the environmental law realm, statutes that are designed to protect the public good often fail to do so most often for the poorest sections of our society, making them the most likely to need our services. Moreover, lawyers have a responsibility to assist the most vulnerable in society. This service ethos to provide legal help for all is echoed in state bar pro bono requirements across the country. 

While this may give the appearance that the work of our centers and clinics is one-sided, our centers and clinics protect the environment for all, and do so while also preparing our students for their future positions as members of the various state bars.  Many of our centers also help private economic interests by looking to collaborative and efficient solutions to our important environmental problems.

The last two decades have brought threats to close environmental law clinics in Oregon, Maryland, and Louisiana because they represented parties adverse to powerful interests.  Beyond these explicit threats, there have been multiple complaints about law professor representation of environmental positions throughout the country.  We feel that the threat to the Poverty Center, and more importantly those it represents, is similar in nature and therefore speak out against it.  We ask that you not accept the recommendation to close the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.

The letter is signed by 45 professors, including 13 CPR Member Scholars, identified below with asterisks.

The Board of Governors is scheduled to take up the matter next week.


**William Andreen
Edgar L. Clarkson Professor of Law
University of Alabama School of Law

Catherine Adcock Admay
Visiting Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy, Faculty Affiliate, Global Health Initiative
Duke University

Hope Babcock
Professor of Law and Director, Environmental Law Clinic
Georgetown University Law School

Michael Blumm
Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar & Professor of Law
Lewis and Clark Law School

**Rebecca Bratspies
Professor of Law, Director, CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform
City University of New York Law School

**Alejandro Camacho
Professor of Law and Director, Center for Land Environment and Natural Resources
Faculty Affiliate, Newkirk Center for Science and Society
University of California Irvine

Ann E. Carlson
Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law; Faculty Co-Director, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Vice Dean for Faculty Recruitment and Intellectual Life
UCLA School of Law

David N. Cassuto
Professor of Law and Director, Brazil-American Institute for Law & Environment (BAILE)
Pace Law School

Kim Diana Connolly
Professor, Director of Clinical Legal Education, Vice Dean for Legal Skills
State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo Law School

Myanna Dellinger
Associate Professor of Law; Director, Institute for Global Law and Policy
Western State College of Law

Debra L. Donahue
Professor of Law
University of Wyoming College of Law

**Holly Doremus
James H. House and Hiram H, Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation
University of California Berkeley School of Law

David Favre
Professor of Law & The Nancy Heathcote Professor of Property and Animal Law
Michigan State University College of Law

Joshua Fershee
Professor of Law
West Virginia University College of Law

**Victor B. Flatt
Tom and Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law, Director, Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources (“CLEAR”), University of North Carolina School of Law;
Distinguished Scholar, Global Energy Management Institute, University of Houston Bauer College of Business

**Alyson C. Flournoy
Professor & Alumni Research Scholar
University of Florida Levin College of Law

**Dale Goble
University Distinguished Professor and Schimke Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Idaho Law

Jacqueline P. Hand
Professor of Law
University of Detroit Mercy Law School

Sean B. Hecht
Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice;
Co-Executive Director, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Co-Director, UCLA Law Environmental Law Clinic
UCLA School of Law

Keith Hirokawa
Professor of Law
Albany Law School

Oliver Houck
Professor of Law
Tulane University School of Law

Shi-Ling Hsu
Larson Professor
Florida State University College of Law

Blake Hudson
Associate Professor, Joint Appointment
LSU Law Center & LSU School of the Coast and Environment

Sam Kalen
Professor of Law & Co-Director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources in the Rockies
University of Wyoming College of Law

**Christine Klein
Chesterfield Smith Professor & University of Florida Research Foundation Professor
Director, LL.M. Program in Environmental & Land Use Law
University of Florida Levin College of Law

**John Knox
Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law
Wake Forest University School of Law

Ryke Longest
Clinical Professor and Director, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic
Duke University School of Law

**Joel Mintz
Professor of Law
Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center

Jonas Monast
Director Climate and Energy Program, the Nicholas Institute, and Lecturer
Duke University School of Law

Laura Murphy
Associate Director & Assistant Professor
Environmental & Natural Resources Law Clinic
Vermont Law School

Sean Nolon
Professor of Law
Director, Dispute Resolution Program & Faculty Representative to the Board of Trustees
Vermont Law School

Michelle Nowlin
Supervising Attorney and Senior Lecturing Fellow
Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic
Duke University School of Law

Hari M. Osofsky
Professor, University of Minnesota Law School
2014-15 Julius E. Davis Chair in Law
Faculty Director, Energy Transition Lab
Director, Joint Degree Program in Law, Science & Technology
University of Minnesota

Patrick Parenteau
Professor of Law and Senior Counsel Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic
Vermont Law School

Gwen C. Parker
Visiting Assistant Professor of Law
Wake Forest University School of Law.

Zygmunt Plater
Professor of Law
Boston College Law School

Ezra Rosser
American University Washington College of Law

Irma S. Russell
Professor, Dean Emeritus,
The University of Montana School of Law

James Salzman
Samuel F. Mordecai Professor of Law & Professor of Environmental Policy
Duke University School of Law and the Nicholas School

Maria Savasta-Kennedy
Clinical Professor of Law
Director, Externship Program
UNC School of Law

**Rena Steinzor
Professor of Law
University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

**Robert Verchick
Gauthier-St. Martin Chair in Environmental Law 
Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
Senior Fellow in Disaster Resilience Leadership
Tulane University

Jamie Van Nostrand
Associate Professor of Law, and Director, Center for Energy and Sustainable Development
West Virginia University College of Law

**Wendy Wagner
Joe A. Worsham Centennial Professor
University of Texas School of Law

Mary Wood
Philip H. Knight Professor of Law & Faculty Director, Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program
University of Oregon School of Law

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