Civil Rights Clinic First and Lasting Impressions

January 24, 2014

By:  Thom Prince

As with any challenge, there will be several defining moments during your career as a student, attorney, or other professional.  It is my sincere hope that your moment involves acing an exam, excelling in court, or an exceptional contribution to the community, rather than something less dignifying such as getting stuck in an elevator, spilling coffee all over your boss, or being grilled for 45 minutes by a professor on a case you haven’t read.  One of my defining moments was my decision to apply for the Civil Rights Clinic.

By way of introduction, I am not what I would consider a Type A personality.  While many students in law school are highly organized multi-taskers, I typically pick and choose my activities and contributions very carefully.  I was hesitant to even apply for the Civil Rights Clinic because I wasn’t sure how my laid back style would mesh with my fellow Clinic members.  That being said, one of my greatest motivators is testing myself by leaving my comfort zone.  Mission accomplished.

Our first meeting of the semester involved a rundown of the current Clinic projects.  While I had taken the time to read up on the material, the flurry of updates as we went around the table told me I would have my work cut out for me.  In a matter of minutes, my calendar went from mostly empty to woefully inadequate.  I made a mental note to search for a calendar that featured ten-day weeks.

The range of topics included the Clinic’s work on the Citizens Review Board, Certificates of Relief, letters to the North Carolina Attorney General, a misdemeanor jury trial, and the blog and Legal Dose forums for sharing our progress with the outside world.  As a former real estate professional, I found no purchase agreements, settlement statements, or title policies that, although composed of cold paper, were always a warm blanket that made me feel like I was on the path to becoming a lawyer.  Instead, I found myself volunteering for and immediately preparing for a jury trial in Superior Court.  Comfort-zone exit achieved.

As I worked on my various projects, I kept track of my hours.  They added up quickly.  I attended meetings and provided updates.  At one point, I tallied 14 hours in a single day.  Yet, it didn’t feel like work.  My new comfort zone became the time I spent doing research, interacting with my fellow Clinic members, and working toward the end goal of completing a project.  I looked forward to every meeting and even began to relish the idea of testing my mettle in the courtroom.  I felt invincible like some comic book superhero from my childhood—okay, so maybe I read a comic book last week, but you get the picture.

You can imagine it came as quite a shock when I realized I was incapable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound.  The jury trial to which I had dedicated so much time and effort did not happen because the court postponed it.  All I could do was use the extra time to continue preparing with my trial partners to provide the best possible defense for our client.

I met participants of the Charlotte Housing Authority voucher program who were in danger of losing their homes, based in part on my decision as a panelist during their hearings.  That’s a lot of responsibility for a third-year student, but the kind attorneys shoulder on a daily basis.

And finally, I listened as people reacted to an article telling us our law degrees would hold little value.  These were all humbling experiences that kept me grounded and focused.  There are some things out of my control.  I cannot make the court hold a trial on a specific date.  I cannot make people follow the rules of their housing voucher program.  All I can do is prepare as much as possible for court and exercise my best judgment as a trained hearing panelist.  As for the value of our law degrees, that is within our power to change.

We, as students and graduates, hold the key to adding value to our degrees by earning a reputation as good attorneys and handling the challenges before us with professionalism and competence.  There’s an old saying:  “Never tell a short man he can’t reach the top shelf.  He’ll kick you in the shin and steal your ladder.”  Maybe it’s not really an old saying, but I’m old and I’m saying it.

I have gone from being wary of participating in Clinic to becoming an ambassador for it, and by extension, the Charlotte School of Law.  The more my fellow clinic members and I can impact the community in a positive way, the more the reputation of the Clinic and school will grow.  Every hand you shake with a smile, every good impression you leave, every community relationship you cultivate, and every bit of professionalism you convey adds value to the education for which you are currently paying.  I encourage each of you to help yourselves by challenging your comfort zone boundaries, advocating with enthusiasm, and seeking out opportunities to grow your own brand.  Grab a ladder and reach for that top shelf.


Year in Review

January 4, 2014

By: Hailey Hawkins

Clinical education is founded on teaching through experience, and allows students to grow by working in their community.  The members of the Civil Rights Clinic past and present put in a great deal of work and passion on a daily basis.  Occasionally, when people put so much passion and energy into the daily work, including the struggles and pitfalls, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture.  Also, when looking at the milestones at any given time it is important to consider everyone who laid the groundwork to make these accomplishments possible, as many of these projects were the result of three to four years of hard work.   As such, this list is meant to celebrate the accomplishments of those individuals in the clinic for 2013 and years past, and serve as inspiration for all future clinic members.

Release Dismissal Agreements– Over a year ago the Civil Rights Clinic began an inquiry into the use of release-dismissal agreements by state prosecutors.   On January 29, 2013 the North Carolina State Bar’s Ethics Committee proposed a Formal Ethics Opinion, yet the language did not make it equally applicable. In response to the proposed Formal Ethics Opinion, the Civil Rights Clinic, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, and the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic submitted letters to the Committee with proposed changes to the language of the Opinion.  On October 15, 2013 the North Carolina State Bar issued a Formal Ethics Opinion, including the language suggested by the Clinic.  To see the opinion:  http://www.ncbar.com/ethics/ethics.asp?page=2&from=10/2013&to=12/2013 

Civilian Review Board– The Civilian Review Board began as a research project for the Civil Rights Clinic nearly three-years ago.  However, in February 2013 the media became involved, and the issue came to the forefront for Mayor Foxx and City Council.  On April 1st the City Council heard Clinic members advocate for reform of the Citizen Review Board based on their research, focusing primarily on the standard of review and the need for transparency.  The City Council voted to send the Citizens Review Board to committee for further review and scrutiny based on the Clinic’s suggestions and research.  On November 25th, the City Council voted unanimously to reform the Civilian Review Board.  For more information on this topic, please see https://cslcivilrights.com/2013/12/01/crb-reform-one-step-closer/

Public Records Request– The Public Records Project has implemented a research plan focusing on the North Carolina statute and the approaches of other states to address public records requests and responses.  Currently, the Clinic has researched all 50 states’, and the District of Columbia’s public records statutes, classifying states as those with similar or comparable statutes, those with less stringent requirements than North Carolina, and those with more stringent requirements than North Carolina. This data was compiled into a letter that was sent to North Carolina Attorney General for consideration.

Ban the Box– In an effort to promote and assist with the communal reintegration of those with a criminal history, the Ban The Box movement sought to remove the requirement that applicants disclose all past convictions on a preliminary application for public employment with the City of Charlotte.  On February 25th, 2013, the Ban the Box movement presented a proposed ordinance to City Council with over 100 community supporters in the audience.  The City Council voted to send the Ban the Box initiative to committee for further review.  For more information on this topic, please see https://cslcivilrights.com/2013/03/06/charlotte-city-council-kicks-the-box-to-committee-for-further-study-2/

A.S. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education– We are happy to report that, in a joint effort with Council for Children’s Rights and Professor Keith Howard,  Civil Rights Clinic members successfully represented a 7th grade student in a Superior Court Appeal of the Mecklenburg County School Board’s disciplinary, 180 day alternative reassignment to Turning Point Academy resulting from an alleged altercation between the student and teacher. Superior Court Judge Ruben Young conducted a hearing on September 3, 2013 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. And on November 11th, he entered an order (1) finding that the Board’s disciplinary action was arbitrary and capricious and (2) remanding the matter back to the Board for reconsideration.  While we did not win on all of our claims, all involved were very satisfied with the result.

Media– In addition to the numerous Charlotte Loafing and Charlotte Observer articles about the Civilian Review Board and Ban the Box, the Clinic received multiple opportunities with the media.  Claudine Chalfant of News 14 Carolina paid a visit to the Civil Rights Clinic and reported on the work that the Clinic has done to help the community.  On December 10, 2013 the Clinic was invited to make an appearance on Charlotte Talks to discuss its work with the Civilian Review Board.

These notable milestones do not encompass the other projects that have grown this year.  The Certificates of Relief project has been taking in clients and developed a system that will continue to help individuals for years to come.  This past semester a clinic member connected with the LGBTQ Center to assist individuals with changing their names and address many of the issues arising in the LGBTQ community.  Clinic members continue to serve as hearing officers for the Charlotte Housing Authority.

Overall, 2013 serves as a great reminder of what can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance, and sets the stage for how much more can be done in 2014.


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