Bills establishing public law schools in 2 ‘underserved’ border regions clear Texas House

Border Report

Lawmakers confident measure will pass Senate

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Does the State of Texas need two new public law schools, and should both be located on the border with Mexico?

That is the questioning facing lawmakers in Austin who last week passed two separate measures that would allow for the establishment of new public law schools in West Texas in El Paso, and in South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lawmakers in Texas say border regions in South and West Texas have a disproportionately lower ratio of lawyers, and both would benefit from new public law schools opening there.

This could help to retain more legal intellectuals on the border because residents wouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to go to law school. This could also help to provide more immigration lawyers, and potentially immigration judges in these border regions, and even more public officials, such as city managers or mayors, who often get law degrees with the intention of seeking public office, legal experts tell Border Report.

“Putting one in El Paso and putting one in the Valley would certainly make law school accessible for more people,” said Jim Harrington, a retired law professor from the University of Texas at Austin, and founder and director emeritus of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which provides pro bono legal counsel to many border residents, and has offices in the Rio Grande Valley.

“A lot of people go to law school not to be lawyers but to get into public policy and public administration, and so that opens these opportunities, as well, for them in these regions,” Harrington said via phone on Monday.

The Texas Legislature is in session until May 31, 2021. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

Two separate bills have passed the Texas House of Representatives that would allow for the establishment of a new public law school in the Rio Grande Valley, and in the El Paso region. The bills — HB 695, and HB 199, respectively — both on Thursday passed a third reading. Both bills have been engrossed and sent to the Texas Senate.

Texas Sen. César Blanco (Courtesy Photo)

If passed in the Senate, both bills would require the governor’s signature.

State Rep. Evelina “Lina” Ortega, a Democrat from El Paso, sponsored HB 199. Texas Sen. César Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso who represents District 29, has filed a companion bill in the Senate: SB 603.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, a Democrat from Weslaco in the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Monday that State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat from the Brownsville area, also has expressed interest in sponsoring a companion measure to his bill, HB 695.

Martinez said he voted for Ortega’s bill on Thursday. And Ortega, who sits on the House Higher Education Committee, supported his measure, as well. That’s because both believe that border communities in Texas need more opportunities for local residents, he said.

“There are many places in our state where residents are underserved in terms of legal representation. In El Paso, there are far fewer attorneys available for residents than in other metro areas in the state — that’s not a coincidence when the nearest in-state law school is in Lubbock, almost 350 miles away. Right now, El Pasoans who want a legal education are forced to move out of state, or halfway across Texas. I understand that the situation is similar in the Valley, so I support their efforts to establish a law school as well,” Ortega told Border Report via email Monday.

“There is a large disparity along the border,” Martinez said via a Zoom interview Monday from his offices in Austin. “These bills address that disparity  in both El Paso and Rio Grande Valley and helps the border communities to address this and have another mechanism available to them.”

“This would provide an opportunity for many of our brightest students down in the Valley not only for them to seek an additional profession but also to retain them and to retain a lot of the brightest minds. You also have a lot of the families who either are working or can’t drive many miles away to go to law school,” he said. “This would provide a law school in the Rio Grande Valley where people don’t have to travel.”

This would provide a law school in the Rio Grande Valley where people don’t have to travel.”

Texas State Rep. Armando ‘Mando’ Martinez

Neither bill stipulates which academic institution would open the law schools, but merely sets the groundwork for the approval by state lawmakers to have these law schools in these communities.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is the largest higher-level academic institution in South Texas. The University of Texas El Paso is the largest in the El Paso region.

“As soon as this bill is signed into law, a university system may request a feasibility study from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which is the initial step to legally begin the establishment of this law school. The timeline for the rest of the process depends on several other factors, but without this bill, that timeline cannot begin,” Ortega said.

Residents from South and West Texas who seek law degrees currently must leave their homes and move hundreds of miles to study law. The closest Texas public law school to the Rio Grande Valley is in San Antonio. The closes to El Paso is Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Martinez said the ratio of lawyers to residents in the Rio Grande Valley is 803 to 1. The ratio in El Paso is about 700 to 1.

Once they graduate, Martinez said, many law school graduates do not move back home and that adds to the lack of lawyers in South Texas.

Opening a new public law school facility in South Texas would cost about $63 million, plus annual operating costs of $1 million. However, Martinez said that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how many classes can be taken via virtual learning, and he says current academic facilities in South Texas have ample administrative and classroom space and could probably work in a law school without such steep initial expenses.

“A lot of Valley communities have reached out with their interest in saying, ‘Hey, we’ll be open to doing this and to supplementing and to provide a facility for it,'” Martinez said.

His bill, HB 695, would allow for the law school to be established either in Hidalgo or Cameron counties.

“Should the Valley have the same ability to provide this educational opportunity as the rest of the State of Texas? Absolutely,” Martinez said. “The Valley should not stay behind.”

Harrington says reducing the ratio of residents to lawyers will also help to drive down the cost of legal representation for the regions, and will make it more affordable for all.

This isn’t the first time that measures of this sort have been proposed. Martinez sponsored a similar bill during the 2019 Legislature, but it failed to advance in the Senate. That measure didn’t pass the State House until early May, and Martinez told Border Report he believed it just ran out of time.

This time, he’s more confident this measure has a chance of passing, and it has at least until May 31 to pass the Senate and then must get signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

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