Is The University System Defying The Legislature's Mandate On Legal Counsel?

ndsu north dakota state university NDSU president dean bresciani

Earlier this year the Legislature passed bills taking the North Dakota University System’s lawyers and auditors away from them and putting them under the control of the Attorney General and State Auditor’s offices, respectively. Not only that, but the lawyers and auditors currently in those positions had to re-apply for those new positions.

Naturally, because many in the university system believes themselves above the law, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani immediately set about creating a new position as “chief of staff” for NDSU so that his personal minion, Christopher Wilson, could keep his job.

That didn’t go over well in some quarters, but now it appears as though Wilson has managed to retain employment in the university system. He’s now a “special assistant to the chancellor,” according to this Fargo Forum article, and apparently still dispensing legal advice despite the Legislature’s intent to move university lawyers to the Attorney General’s office.

The article is about NDSU President Dean Bresciani defending the legality of his campus cops channeling the revenue they generate from tickets and citations to the City of Fargo, and of course Bresciani thinks the arrangement is perfectly legal.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]…this situation – lawyers working for the university system trying to find legal justifications for the universities to do illegal things – is exactly what the legislature was trying to avoid.[/mks_pullquote]

First, let’s address the legality.

Bresciani says the Attorney General has ruled that campus police officers can choose to send their revenues to the city or the state. “The attorney general’s already ruled on that one and said that’s the decision of the institution, both are reasonable places,” Bresciani said, according to the Forum.

The problem is that the AG issued that opinion before the Supreme Court limited the jurisdiction of the campus cops to campus. Under the law, only municipal employees may issue citations based on municipal ordinances. State employees must use state law. The state Supreme Court found, specifically, that NDSU campus cops are not municipal employees. While the court may not have addressed the question of revenues specifically, it follows logically that the revenue campus cops, who are state employees, generate should be going to the state – more specifically the Common Schools Trust Fund – and not the City of Fargo.

The Attorney General’s office may have felt otherwise prior to the Supreme Court weighing in, but that’s not relevant in light of the ruling. The game has changed. The campus cops cannot also be municipal cops, thus they cannot write tickets based on municipal code.

Pretty simple stuff.

Second, let’s address Wilson and his legal advice.

It’s worth remembering that Wilson tried to intervene in a similar case on NDSU’s behalf and was actually sanctioned for it by the court (see below). He now seems to be working on the university system’s behalf to push back against the Supreme Court’s jurisdictional limitations on campus cops:

The university asked about fines, as well as the jurisdictional range of the term “institution,” according to an email sent to Bresciani by Chris Wilson, special assistant to the chancellor. …

In the email, Wilson summarized his jurisdiction questions as, “what happens when something occurs outside the ‘institution’ but within visual range of an officer; what mechanisms can be used for Fargo PD to request assistance from NDSU PD; etc.”

If the university system is relying on Wilson’s legal advice, they’re in trouble and not just because of the Legislature’s new mandate. I’m pretty sure I could claim to have more legal acumen than this guy given the number of times I’ve caught NDSU and the university system in open records violations on his watch.

With some lawmakers – notably House Majority Leader Al Carlson – already upset about NDSU sending campus cops to patrol far off campus, this revelation that Wilson is apparently continuing to work in a legal capacity for the university system despite their removal of lawyers from the system isn’t going to help calm the waters. Because this situation – lawyers working for the university system trying to find legal justifications for the universities to do illegal things – is exactly what the legislature was trying to avoid.

New NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott has been on the job for just weeks now, and already he’s getting a taste of what has created so much friction between the university system and the rest of the state.