Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring weighed in on the lawsuit seeking to stop Sweet Briar College from closing, with a brief arguing that the county attorney does not have legal standing to bring the case.
It’s another hurdle for alumnae and others trying to keep the 114-year-old college open.
Sweet Briar’s leaders announced abruptly last month that the private women’s college would close permanently at the end of August, and many of the school’s supporters have been fighting desperately to keep it open.
Ellen Bowyer, the Amherst County attorney, has asked the court for an injunction, arguing that charitable funds have been misused in violation of state law and that a closure would violate the terms of the will under which the college was founded.
College officials have said the claims in the case are not supported by Virginia law.
People following the situation closely had been wondering what the attorney general would do. Now the attorney general has filed a friend-of-the-court brief and challenged Bowyer’s standing in the case.
“It does look like he intends to play a major role and I think the court will pay considerable attention to the arguments he makes,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Herring essentially argues that in such a situation, with a charitable institution (the college, a nonprofit established in a bequest from an estate) disbanding, the state attorney general has been granted authority by the General Assembly to determine what is necessary to protect the public interest.
Bowyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If the judge determines that Bowyer does not have standing, the case would be dismissed without consideration of its merits.
A spokesman for Saving Sweet Briar sent a statement: “We continue to stand behind the county attorney and her analysis and believe this case should be resolved in court through an open process.”
Herring disavows an opinion about the merits of the case or the closure of the college and mostly argues the issue of standing.
But he did warn that they should preserve the assets of the institution and not spend them on litigation.
For example, he argues: “The Complaint Filed By the Amherst County Attorney Creates Duplicative, Costly, and Inconsistent Oversight of Sweet Briar’s Charitable Assets.”
“The Office of the Attorney General should be permitted to continue its examination of the decision to close Sweet Briar and its review of proposed modifications to charitable gifts without interruption by this case,” the brief goes on to argue, “so that it may assure that Sweet Briar’s assets are used for purposes consistent with the restrictions originally placed on the donations.”
The county attorney is in effect trying to stop the clock, keeping students from transferring and professors from taking new jobs and so on, Tobias said. “But it just takes time to move through the legal process. It’s a very uphill fight, because of where you are in the school calendar. People make other plans. At some point, it just gets to be too late.”