Carlos Guerra:
Who should pick St. Mary's team? Law school or student group

Web Posted: 03/09/2004
San Antonio Express-News

Older people of colorwill happily tell you that things have improved. But many will also tell you that some barriers still exist that keep minorities from rising as high, or developing as fully, as they might in a color-blind society.

Many older organizations of Latino college students emerged as responses to blatant discrimination. Others blossomed to address less obvious slights, such as the denial of self-determination every group's right to define itself and pick its own leaders.

Since last fall, St. Mary's Hispanic Law Students Association has been embroiled in such a battle with the law school's administration. This tiff has now drawn the attention of several prominent alumni, some legislators and at least one professional association.

In the process, the brouhaha has also generated a thick e-mail file that is circulating among local lawyers detailing both sides' arguments.

The dispute is over which students will compete in the Hispanic National Bar Association's Moot Court Competition and over who selects them.

St. Mary's Hispanic Law Students Association is one of the law school's 41 student organizations.

When the Hispanic National Bar started its competition a decade ago, HLSA began holding tryouts for it, and for nine years picked the teams and drafted its faculty advisers as volunteer coaches.

The contest has now become quite prestigious, and in 2002 the law school took control of all such contests and named its own coach.

In late 2003, the school's coach attended the HLSA's usual tryouts but chose only one team member from these contenders and appointed a second member who did not try out for the HLSA.

Thc coach later named a third team member who also was not at the HLSA's tryouts. And when the one HLSA competitor resigned in protest, a third student who didn't try out was named to replace him.

Now, none of the three team members competing participated in the HLSA's tryouts, but the law school's Web site still proclaims that "HLSA hosts an internal moot court competition from which students are selected to represent St. Mary's in the Hispanic National Bar Association's Moot Court Competition."

Undaunted about having none of its own competitors on the school's team, the HLSA held more tryouts and picked its own team.

But law school dean Bill Piatt let the group know that only the "official" team would compete. School funding for the HLSA's team was denied and curt reminders were circulated warning that anyone purporting to represent the school or raising money without the law school's authorization would commit a grievous no-no that might have major, long-term implications.

Tina Torres, president of the local Mexican American Bar Association, says her group is concerned because the contest "is a huge venue and a lot of Hispanic kids get very excited about going to this great networking opportunity."

She also says that MABA feels the HLSA has been wronged because the school has sent two teams to other similar contests.

But in an e-mail to the entire law school community, Piatt reminded everyone that as dean, he certifies the "good moral character of every one of our graduates who plans to take the bar exam." And he warned that "in those rare instances I have been required to follow up by reporting (inappropriate) conduct to the appropriate officials, the consequences have not been pleasant for the students."

And there's more. Stay tuned.