The proposal to build a law school in the Rio Grande Valley was once again submitted to the state Legislature, Nov. 12 by State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, just months after the UT System announced plans to build a medical school in the area.
Two similar bills were submitted in the 2011 State Legislative Session, but failed to make it out of the House of Higher Education Committee, a body with jurisdiction over education beyond high school in the state of Texas.
District 40 State Rep. Terry Canales supports the move to bring a law school to the Valley. Canales has been an attorney in District 40, which includes a chunk of Hidalgo County, and Edinburg, for almost six years and is a graduate of Saint Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio. In a statement from an article by Edinburg Politics, he expressed the need for a law school in the Valley.
“First and foremost, a law school is about empowering a region with tools and knowledge to see and obtain legal and social justice,” Canales said. “In addition, a law school creates jobs through construction of facilities, the hiring of administrators, faculty and staff and securing government and private grants for everything from financial aid to legal clinics.”
If a law school were established in the Rio Grande Valley, it would not be the first. In the mid-’90s the Reynaldo Garza School of Law in Mission closed its doors after failing to earn accreditation from the American Bar Association, a professional organization focused on improving the legal profession.
Before an attorney can begin practicing, they have to pass the Texas Bar Exam. However, the exam cannot be taken unless the person taking it has graduated from an accredited school.
The closest such school to the Rio Grande Valley is Saint Mary’s in San Antonio. It is one of 9 in Texas (five are private). Jerry Polinard, political science professor at UTPA and pre-law adviser, said that it would play a big part in the decision to establish a law school in the Valley.
“Part of the question the Legislature would ask is why we would need more than 10 law schools. Our answer is that it would be location,” Polinard said. “The closest public law school is five hours away. Obviously it would be an advantage (for students), and it probably saves on travel and housing costs.”
However, the number of existent schools isn’t the only thing that could keep the law school from being established in the Valley. Another hindrance is that the entity would have to be established on state funding.
“It is an uphill battle. We are talking about a bill that would support a state law school. States are stingy with their education money,” Polinard said. “It always loops back to what it is going to cost.”
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board, the cost of starting a law school can range just above $80 million in a five-year period. This may prove a problem, especially for a state with a recent history of budget cuts. According to National Public Radio, state lawmakers cut $4 billion from education funding in 2011, leaving 12,000 teachers and support staff unemployed.
Not everyone agreed that creating a law school in the Valley would be a good call. One such person is Jackie Odum, a 21-year-old political science major and vice president of the UTPA Pre-law Society. She believes that although the school would bring more resources to law students in the Valley, she also thinks it would not benefit the community since it would create an unbalance in the Valley’s legal world.
“I think it would open doors for students, but the Valley is such a close-knit community since people who grew up here tend to stay here,” Odum said. “With the system down here, if you’re an attorney from the Valley the odds are in your favor against out-of-town attorneys. It’s an unfair advantage.”
The idea behind this is that having people who graduated from a Valley school would create attorneys who have already had the chance to establish connections with judges and other attorneys, as opposed to someone who moves here from another city and has to start fresh.
In 2009, Texas law schools graduated 2,340 students, but only 1,837 of those graduates passed the Texas bar exam. Also, the Valley has the lowest lawyer-to-citizen ratios in the state of Texas according to The Texas Tribune.
Despite the obstacles before it and the history of the last law school in the Valley, Reynaldo Garza, the people behind the move seem determined to make it happen when the Legislature goes into session in January. But to Polinard, the chances are slim, especially after an announcement this summer by UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who has made it his mission to establish a medical school in the Valley.
For the medical school, the plan is to convert two buildings in Harlingen and the Regional Academic Health Center, which is behind the campus’ Human Services Building, along with the creation of a school of public health in Brownsville.
“I do think that it is inevitable that South Texas will get a law school,” Polinard said. “There is a need since we are so far from an accredited law school, but the odds are against it this year.”