Chapel Hill, N.C. — University of North Carolina officials on Friday hired two elite law firms to defend the 17-campus system against a federal lawsuit over House Bill 2 and asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to pick up the tab.
The UNC system is a defendant in lawsuits filed by transgender students and staff and the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging that the provisions of House Bill 2 requiring people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their birth gender violate the civil rights of transgender people.
UNC President Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chairman Louis Bissette have insisted that UNC campuses don't discriminate and that no anti-discrimination policies would change because of House Bill 2. Spellings noted the law doesn't include any provisions for enforcing the bathroom rule, and in an affidavit filed Friday with a motion seeking to halt the civil lawsuits until the Justice Department case is resolved, she said administrators have no plans to enforce it.
"We're caught in the middle," Spellings said.
"We didn't make the law. We're charged with following the law. We're trying to determine what the law is," Bissette said.
Officials said talks with the Justice Department and U.S. Department of Education continue to find a way to resolve the government's concerns about the system's compliance with civil rights laws, but the Board of Governors voted Friday to retain Jones Day and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr to defend the university system in the Justice Department lawsuit.
Two partners in Jones Day's Washington, D.C., office, Noel Francisco and Glen Nager, will handle litigation of the case, while Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general and a partner in Wilmer Hale's Washington office, will advise UNC on legal strategy.
Tom Ziko, a former deputy attorney general now in private practice in Raleigh, will represent UNC in the private lawsuits.
Cooper, the Democratic nominee for governor, said shortly after House Bill 2 was enacted in March that his office wouldn't defend challenges to the law, calling it a "national embarrassment."
A divided Board of Governors then had Bissette send a letter to Cooper demanding that the Attorney General's Office set aside money to pay UNC's legal bills to defend against the lawsuits.
"The University will incur unanticipated and potentially significant legal costs as a result of your decision not to provide legal representation through your office, even while the University continues to pay your office for legal services," the letter states. "Accordingly, on behalf of the University, I am requesting that your office begin setting aside funds sufficient to pay the attorneys' fees and expenses that the University will incur in defending these matters and work with us to ensure that the expenses are paid in full."
A spokeswoman for Cooper's office said in an email to WRAL News, "The Attorney General would encourage the UNC Board of Governors to help fight HB2 by urging the governor and legislature to repeal the law, which would quickly solve the problem."
"This has to due with the fact that our university system has been sued, and the attorney general's job under the law is to provide for our defense," said Board of Governors member Thom Goolsby, a former Republican state senator. "He's refusing to do it, and I think that's outrageous."
Protests replaced by public comment
The rest of the Board of Governors meeting went off without incident. Following repeated student protests at recent meetings, the board held its first-ever public comment period after Friday's meeting. Nine people spoke on a variety of issues, including House Bill 2.
"It's an egregious law that discriminates against a population of North Carolina citizens, for heaven's sake," Harry Phillips told the board.
"As an educator, I ask that you reject state-sponsored discrimination," said Altha Cravey, a geography professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
During the board meeting, Bissette was elected to another two-year term as chairman, and the board recognized former President Tom Ross, retiring East Carolina University Chancellor Steve Ballard and a number of student and faculty award-winners.
"We didn't have protests. I don't know if (the comment period is) the reason or everyone's at the beach. We didn't have disruptions, and we want to hear from people," Bissette said.