Consolidated school in Rio Grande Valley may include law school

Joshua Fechter

A law school may join the proposed consolidated UT System institution in the Rio Grande Valley despite claims by the state’s higher education agency that Texas does not immediately need another law school.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives would grant university systems the authority to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor for governmental relations, said the System is prioritizing the establishment of the consolidated university over the establishment of a law school, which could become part of the new institution at a later date.

“Our initial goal is the successful creation of the new university,” McBee said. “If legislation passes and other systems wish to establish a law school, we would not stand in the way of that and would look forward to partnering with them in some fashion.”

The Texas Legislature is considering bills filed in both houses that would combine the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution. The bill would give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal.

In a 2010 report, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended against creating a new law school, citing data that projected the state does not face a shortage of lawyers. However, the report said a law school in the Rio Grande Valley would increase opportunities for underrepresented groups, primarily Hispanics, who comprise 7 percent of the State Bar of Texas’ membership.

Similar legislation was introduced during the past three legislative sessions, but did not gain approval.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen and UT alumnus, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school. He said the bill would be amended to allow other university systems to establish a law school in the Valley. 

The proposed law school would cost the state more than $80 million during a five year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations. The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for a prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation. Lucio said the potential cost should not bar legislators from addressing legal education in the Valley.

“I’m not naive to the cost restraints of establishing a new school,” Lucio said. “I’m not naive to the fact that we’re going to probably spend a substantial amount of money establishing this umbrella university in South Texas, but we can’t stop having the conversation.” 

Lucio said the region has one of the lowest lawyer-to-resident ratios in Texas.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents, and Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. 

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed a separate bill to establish a law school in the Valley and said residents may not have the financial means to move elsewhere to attend law school even if they are qualified to attend.

“If we’re pushing a medical school and understand that we don’t have a medical school close by, why not have a law school?” Martinez said. “We should be afforded the same opportunity as the rest of the state.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "South Texas law school proposed".