12:33 pm CST - January 10, 2013
Posted under On The Record
By David A. Diaz, Legislative Media
Although The University of Texas System is more than welcome to build a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley, legislation filed on Monday, January 7, by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, makes it clear that UT is not the only fish in the ocean.
House Bill 363, if passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry this spring, would allow any university system to build a public law school in deep South Texas.
“That provision would open the door for some of the other major players in Texas higher education, such as the Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and University of Houston systems, to build their legislative presence – which translates into more state funding for their respective institutions – in the rapidly-growing Rio Grande Valley, with its population of more than 1.3 million,” Martínez explained.
Martínez, who is the Dean of the Hidalgo County House Delegation, said he extended the law school option to other university systems because so much is riding on a major proposal by the UT System, which will also require approval by the Legislature this spring, to build a $100 million medical school in deep South Texas.
“UT is a great higher education system, but so are the Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and University of Houston systems, and we want the UT System to be able to pool all its political and financial resources in order to make the Valley medical school a reality,” said Martínez. “If, after my legislation is approved, UT wants to also build the law school, that would be outstanding, but not if it takes money and political momentum away from the proposed UT medical school in the Valley.”
The UT, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and University of Houston systems all have public law schools.
But for deep South Texas, the closest law schools to the Rio Grande Valley are in San Antonio (approximately 260 miles way), Austin (approximately 305 miles away), and Houston (approximately 340 miles away). St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio is a private law school.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which is a state agency with great influence over public higher education in the Lone Star State, the cost, over five years, of beginning a brand new law school is $80.4 million.
In October 2010, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, under orders from the Texas Legislature, issued a 46-page analysis, entitled The Feasibility of Establishing a Public Law School in Texas, Including the Texas-Mexico Border Region.
The report found that Texas does not need any new law schools.
But Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who supports efforts to bring a law school to the Valley, disagrees, noting that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board does not have the final say on the matter. The Texas Legislature has the final authority, he notes.
Equally important, the state, especially the wealthy UT System, has an obligation to provide minorities and women equal access to higher educational resources, such as a public law school, Canales emphasizes.
“The current system of public legal education in Texas continues to fail women and minorities, who just are not able to get into our existing public law schools,” Canales said. “In addition, Texas Tech University School of Law is located in Lubbock County, which has about 285,000 residents, compared with Hidalgo County, which has almost 800,000 residents. We certainly deserve our own law school.
“According to its own findings, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board stated that Hispanic students are the most dramatically under-represented group in the state’s public and independent law schools,” Canales reflected, quoting the report. “While census projections have Hispanics at 37 percent of the population, only 16 percent of law school graduates and 7 percent of the Texas State Bar’s membership is Hispanic.”
Martínez’ HB 363 is very similar to House Bill 67 by Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, which states that the UT System would be the only university system which could build a law school in the Valley.
Both HB 363 and HB 67, which was pre-filed on Monday, November 12, leave it up to the board of regents to determine the location of any new law school.
Under Martinez’ proposal, the governing board of a university system would have to request that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system would have to take in order to obtain accreditation of the law school.
That requirement is also contained in Lucio’s HB 67.
Also under both Martinez’ and Lucio’s bills, no state funding for a Rio Grande Valley law school could be provided until September 1, 2019.
Other key information from the report, The Feasibility of Establishing a Public Law School in Texas, Including the Texas-Mexico Border Region, includes that when the number of law school students is compared to the total population of a given region, the Gulf Coast region (Houston) has the highest ratios and the South Texas region has the lowest ratios.
The report additionally concluded that women and African American lawyers are also under-represented in Texas. Women account for 32 percent of the Texas State Bar’s membership, yet they comprise 49.9 percent of the Texas population and 41.2 percent of Texas law school graduates.
African Americans are 12 percent of the 2008 Texas population, and they make up 12 percent of the law school graduates and 4 percent of the Texas State Bar’s membership.
Regarding the costs to build and operate a law school, Canales says Texas would benefit economically from bringing a law school to the Valley, just as it would by expanding professional schools in medicine, pharmacy, and other health-related professional fields.
Efforts to bring a state-supported law school to deep South Texas began in earnest as early as 1997, when then-Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, secured funding for an innovative program that would have allowed students at UT-Pan American to take law school classes, through the use of video technology, being conducted at the Texas Tech University School of Law.
However, those plans were dashed when Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, blocked the implementation of the program, fearing it would devalue the prestige of the Texas Tech University School of Law, which is located in his legislative district.