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Local leaders are renewing an effort to bring a legal program to the area

Kaitlin Bell
July 21, 2007
The Monitor

The Reynaldo G. Garza School of Law has not had students, professors or courses in more than a decade.

It lacks the state’s permission to grant law degrees or have graduates sit for the Texas bar exam.

But the school is still operating — albeit like a government in exile.

Ever since the school’s failure to secure accreditation from the American Bar Association effectively shut it down in the mid-1990s, the board of directors has been meeting several times each year to brainstorm a way to reopen.

The board and a number of the school’s graduates say the Rio Grande Valley desperately needs a law school for working adults whose family obligations or limited funds would preclude moving to San Antonio, Austin, Dallas or elsewhere for a degree.

They say the Garza school — which counts among its graduates the Willacy County district attorney, four of five Hidalgo County-court-at-law judges and dozens of practicing local lawyers — can provide that much-in-demand legal education at minimum cost.

“I like education to be universal. I don’t want it to be concentrated in the hands of a few,” said Dan Frank, a Mission lawyer who co-founded the school and is now its board president.

Many local lawyers, state legislators and educators agree the region badly
needs a place for Valley residents to obtain their law degree.

They point out the closest school is in San Antonio and say that with just nine
law schools Texas could certainly use another to fill continuing demand for attorneys.

“There’s a lot of untapped talent here that never can leave the Valley because of the lack of resources, or the lack of a law school,” said Pablo Almaguer, an attorney who heads the Edinburg branch of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., a free clinic for indigent clients. Almaguer is also president of the Hidalgo County Bar Association, but emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the association.

But many of the Valley’s legislators don’t think the Garza law school, which has a long history of butting heads with the state and American Bar Association, is the right candidate.

Since the school went defunct they have filed multiple bills trying to establish a public law school affiliated with either the University of Texas-Pan American or the University of Texas-Brownsville. None have been signed into law. The two bills filed this session died in the state House and Senate.

The decade of stymied efforts points to how difficult, expensive and time-consuming starting any kind of professional school can be.

But it also highlights a particularly torturous process would-be law schools in Texas must follow to produce graduates licensed to practice law in the state.

A fight over standards

The reason the Garza law school isn’t operating mostly boils down to one issue: The school has never received accreditation from the American Bar Association, the principal regulatory organization for law schools nationwide.

The state has long required that accreditation for a school’s graduates to sit for the Texas bar exam. It also requires it to grant law degrees. All of Texas’ nine operating law schools are accredited.

Texas’ emphasis on ABA accreditation isn’t unusual; in fact, 21 states and U.S. territories don’t make any such exceptions, according to a 2007 report on bar exam eligibility by the association and the National Conference of Law Examiners.

However, some states develop their own standards to determine whether a law school should be allowed to grant J.D. degrees.

The state says a loophole in the law allowing the school to register with the state Secretary of State’s office as a corporation made it possible for it to start granting degrees without approval from the state’s higher education agency. The problem came when it was time for the school’s graduates to sit for the bar.

At times during the 1980s, the Garza school applied for ABA accreditation, but ultimately withdrew its applications, having decided the organization’s standards were elitist and unfair, Frank said.

Some of those standards, such as requirements about faculty pay, have since been eliminated, following a lawsuit the U.S. Justice Department filed against the organization in 1995.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the school managed to secure various temporary waivers from the state Legislature and state Supreme Court allowing its graduates to take the bar exam.

But political goodwill seemed to have run out by the mid-1990s, and without the ability to promise graduates they’d have a chance to become practicing lawyers in Texas, the school was unable to continue operations.

Several Valley legislators lobbied hard for temporary waivers for Garza school alumni.
But many others in state government, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — who at the time was Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court — argued that the state needed to stick to its high standards, not water them down granting waivers.

Cornyn, in a 1993 letter to state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, cited a 22-percent average pass rate for the school over the past five years, compared to 82.9 percent for graduates of other Texas law schools, as evidence the school was not serious about academics.

Frank says the school was just getting started and could have improved its pass rate with time. He noted that its student body was disproportionately poor and Hispanic, compared to other schools, and those factors likely contributed to the low pass rate.

Lawrence Velvel, dean and cofounder of the non-ABA-accredited Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, agrees.

He said ABA approval isn’t a guarantee of a good legal education and that a committed school can increase its bar exam pass rate in a few years.

“If a school insists to itself that it must be competent, then it can do the job,” Velvel said, adding that states just need to give non-ABA accredited schools a chance.

Velvel, whose school sued the ABA over its standards in the 1990s but lost, has been a long-time, outspoken critic of the organization.

Like Frank, Velvel argues its standards are unfair and elitist and focus too much on expensive facilities and cushy benefits for professors rather than the practical knowledge needed to practice law.

He says the standards and bar exam requirements requiring an ABA-accredited degree end up keeping working-class people and minorities from a chance to practice law.

County Court-at-Law No. 4 Judge Fred Garza said he’s one of the students who would never have attended law school if it meant leaving the Valley.

Garza said he had two or three jobs while attending night classes.

“If anything, the proof is in the pudding,” Garza said. “It did make some lawyers out of this area, and even some judges.”

Getting going again

The Garza board’s current plan has the school operating as a branch of the Oratory Academy of St. Philip Neri, a private Catholic elementary and secondary school in Pharr.

The oratory school would lend its classrooms and soon-to-be-completed lecture hall, library and media center for nighttime and weekend use, said Yvonne Perez, the oratory school’s president and a law school board member.

The law school is already storing its old books in rooms off the oratory school’s administration building.

David Linkletter, who handles certification of private institutions for the state’s higher education agency, called the Garza school tenacious in its continuing efforts to reopen, but said the school’s board of directors has no concept of what it truly takes to run a law school.

“It has no real resources,” he said. “It couldn’t open up and do anything credible now.”
Still, law school board president Frank insists the school can — and has — done much with little.

Alumnus Juan Angel Guerra — the colorful and controversial Willacy County district attorney who camped outside the county jail with animals to protest what he called politically motivated charges against him of theft by a public servant — said he believes powerful people statewide want to limit the number of Hispanic lawyers.

Guerra said he also thinks the mostly Hispanic legal community in the Valley wants to prevent competition from a rash of new lawyers.

But Almaguer, the incoming Hidalgo Bar Association president and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid director, said he believes there is plenty of legal work to go around, especially in social service law for the county’s neediest residents.

Linkletter dismissed Guerra’s suggestions as completely off-base.

He said the state’s tough standards, including a law passed in 1997 prohibiting schools that the state hasn’t approved to grant degrees from using terms like “law school” in their names, are designed to protect students from diploma mills only running schools for the money.

Linkletter also noted that should the state Legislature pass a bill establishing a public law school at UTPA or UT-Brownsville that school would get on a fast-track to granting degrees.

“We will work with the institution to get it [the law school] up and running,” he said.

A fresh start

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, and his father, the state senator, saw their bills establishing a law school at UT-Brownsville die in the Legislature this session.
But Rep. Lucio said he remains optimistic, planning to work with the state’s higher education regulatory agency to develop a plan of action to establish a school before the next legislative session begins in 2009.

He said that he hopes having all the research done will help him make a stronger case to colleagues about the need for a publicly funded law school in the Valley.

“The need and the determination have been shown,” Rep. Lucio said. “It’s now trying to narrow our focus on how we do it.”

Lucio and most members of the Valley delegation emphasized they think ABA accreditation is important if a Valley law school is to be seriously taken.

Sen. Lucio, who years ago pushed for Garza school’s graduates to get a legislative exemption allowing them to take the bar, said he wants a fresh start — without the stigma of the Garza school’s contentious history.

He and several other Valley legislators also say they think a Valley law school would have the best chance of success if it is affiliated with either UTPA or UT-Brownsville, which they said have administrative, financial and other resources needed to get a new school off the ground.

Frank, the law school’s president, said he would be sad to see the school’s efforts come to nothing, but said an inexpensive school geared to working people would fill a much-needed void.

“If we can get a law school that the community can use, we’ll certainly volunteer, ‘hey replace us’, if that’s the way it’s got to be,” he said.