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Rio Grande Valley School of Law legislation endorsed by longtime Judge Arnoldo Cantú, Jr., a Democrat, and former Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Abbott - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED: Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Arnoldo Cantú, Jr., shown here in this image taken on Monday, February 19, 2018, and former Hidalgo County 464th District Court Judge Ysmael Fonseca, submitted testimony on Thursday, March 25, 2021, before the House Committee on Higher Education in support of House Bill 695 by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, which proposes the creation of the Rio Grande Valley School of Law.

Photograph Courtesy JUDGE ARNOLDO CANTU FACEBOOK

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Rio Grande Valley School of Law legislation endorsed by longtime Judge Arnoldo Cantú, Jr., a Democrat, and former Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Abbott

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

A plan to create a Rio Grande Valley School of Law, authored by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, has drawn public support from longtime Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Arnoldo Cantú, Jr. a Democrat, and former Judge Ysmael Fonseca, a Republican and appointee of Gov. Greg Abbott.

Their endorsement came in the form of respective written testimony submitted on their behalf by Martínez before the House Committee on Higher Education, which held a public hearing on the matter at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

As the author, Martínez is the legislator who filed House Bill 695 and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).

House Bill 695 calls on the Texas Legislature to begin the process that would lead to the establishment of a public law school in Hidalgo County or Cameron County, with state funding authorized to begin September 1, 2027, for the operation and maintenance of that law school.

Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, is the only Valley state representative who serves on that committee.

A committee is a group of legislators appointed by the presiding officer of the House of Representatives or the Senate to which proposed legislation is referred or a specific task is assigned.

A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both chambers (House or Representatives and the Senate) of the Legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state. “Bill” types include Senate and House bills, Senate and House Joint Resolutions, Senate and House concurrent resolutions, and Senate and House resolutions.

https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/legref/Glossary.pdf

The House Committee on Higher Education, as is the practice by House and Senate committees on most measures after their first public hearing, took no action on the legislation (bill) on Thursday, March 25, 2021, although no one testified against Martinez’ proposal, which is identified as House Bill 695.

“Our area has historically been plagued with economic burdens, and in dire need of the expansion of educational opportunities. A law school in the Valley would address these issues by providing higher education opportunities locally and bring immeasurable gains not just for South Texas, but for the entire state,” stated Cantú, a Democrat. “I wholeheartedly support the establishment of a law school proposed by House Bill 695.”

Fonseca, a Republican, was appointed on Wednesday, August 28, 2019, by Gov. Greg Abbott to serve on the 449th Hidalgo County District Court until his term ended at the end of 2020.

“There is also great value in having a law school that can serve the community while future lawyers are studying,” Fonseca stated in his written testimony. “I remember spending countless hours every semester of my second and third year of law school working on real cases with my professors in service to the community while I learned the practice of law.”

Cantú noted that there are existing facilities in the Valley that could house the proposed law school.

“The funding for a new law school should not be an issue. There are universities’ facilities already present in this area so that new buildings should not be necessary,” Cantú revealed. “A local school district has offered classrooms if necessary to house the school. Learning could be made virtual if necessary. There are many ways of holding expenses to a minimum, and our area, long-deprived, would greatly benefit.”

In general, virtual learning is defined as using computer software, the Internet or both to deliver instruction to students. The teacher interacts with the student via the Internet, through such media as online video, online forums, e-mail, and instant messaging.

Having a legal aid clinic that serves a community at little or no cost, goes hand-in-hand with a well-rounded legal education, and that can only happen if there is a law school in our community, Fonseca continued.

“If we have the opportunity to grow the local legal community, we give the people of the Rio Grande Valley greater access to justice. Our entire State benefits from it,” Fonseca added. “I look forward to the opportunity to help such a law school thrive at home.”

The complete text of both men’s written testimony follows:

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March 24, 2021

Honorable Armando Martínez
State Representative District 39
P.O. Box 2910
Austin, Texas 78768

Re: House Bill 695

Dear Honorable Armando Martínez,

My name is Arnoldo Cantú, Jr. I have been a life-long resident of Hidalgo County. Texas in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV).

I attended and graduates from Pan American University, now known as UTRGV (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) starting as a freshman pre-law major and graduating with a degree in education. I was an elementary classroom teacher for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District for 10 years.

During my teaching years, I married and started a family. The responsibilities for a young, married couple were man and were met head-on.

During my tenure at PSJA School District, the Reynaldo G. Garza School of Law started in Brownsville. I applied for admission and the following year I was accepted by the school and the school relocated to Edinburg. It was a night school. I was teaching during the day and I was a student at night. Night classes made it possible for me and for the majority of students to attend law school.

I enrolled fully aware that the school was unaccredited but the administration, the facility, and the entire student body made efforts to get the accreditation needed for graduating students to sit for the (Texas State) Bar exam.

The school did not get accredited. The school was seeking to merge with a college or university, but at the state level funding for the school was not available. We were visited by four of the State Supreme Court Justices that were impressed enough to return to Austin, and by their authority waived the accreditation requirement and allowed the students graduating within the next two years to sit for the Texas Bar Exam. That action by the Justices, on or about 1987, has produced approximately 50 attorneys, now serving in various positions in South Texas, but also in areas north of the Rio Grande Valley. Four of the Garza graduates, including myself, are now serving as Judges of Hidalgo County Courts at Law. We were provided with a wonderful opportunity, and this is why I write this short history in support of House Bill 695.

Our area has historically been plagued with economic burdens and in dire need of the expansion of educational opportunities. A law school in the Valley would address these issues by providing higher education opportunities locally and bring immeasurable gains not just for South Texas, but for the entire state.

I wholeheartedly support the establishment of a law school proposed by House Bill 695. The funding for a new law school should not be an issue. There are universities’ facilities already present in this area so that new buildings should not be necessary. The community support for a law school is great. A local school district has offered classrooms if necessary to house the school. Learning could be made virtual if necessary. There are many ways of holding expenses to a minimum, and our area, long-deprived, would greatly benefit.

I send this letter indication of my whole-hearted support for House Bill 695.

Respectfully,

Arnoldo Cantú, Jr.
Judge and life-long Texan from Hidalgo County
100 N. Closner
Edinburg, Texas 78539

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March 24, 2021

Via E-mail
Hon. Jim Murphy
Chairman
Higher Education Committee
Texas House of Representatives

Via E-mail
Hon. Leo Pacheco
Vice-Chairman
Higher Education Committee
Texas House of Representatives

Dear Mr. Chairman and Mr. Vice-Chairman:

I write in support of House Bill 695, which would create a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

I have seen many of our future lawyers leave the Valley to never come back. We are losing talented lawyers because they are forced to relocate and the costs of a legal education lure them to seek career opportunities that will allow them to cover those costs — opportunities that are only available in large metropolitan areas. If instead, we give these talented students the opportunity to stay close to home and give them an opportunity to become lawyers at lower costs, then we may be able to address the shortage of affordable legal access to our community.

From September 2019 to December 2020, I had the privilege of serving as a district court judge in Hidalgo County. During my tenure on the bench, I saw countless litigants in civil and family cases asking the court for assistance because they were unable to afford the costs of an attorney. This put me in a precarious position, wanting to help the indigent but restrained by my ethical duties and obligations. The costs of legal representation, even if set at a lower rate compared to our large cities, is still not within reach of our population.

In my tenure on the bench, I also saw an increasing backlog in criminal cases pending before the courts — created in part by the pandemic. Criminal attorneys on both sides of the docket had their hands full even before jury trials were canceled a year ago, and thousands of defendants will have their cases delayed because there are simply not enough lawyers to handle the caseloads we will see in the coming decade.

There is also great value in having a law school that can serve the community while future lawyers are studying. I remember spending countless hours every semester of my second and third year of law school working on real cases with my professors in service to the community while I learned the practice of law.

A legal aid clinic that serves a community at little or no cost, goes hand-in-hand with a well-rounded legal education, and that can only happen if there is a law school in our community.

If we have the opportunity to grow the local legal community, we give the people of the Rio Grande Valley greater access to justice. Our entire State benefits from it. I look forward to the opportunity to help such a law school thrive at home.

Sincerely,

Ysmael D. Fonseca

Guerra & Sabo, P.L.L.C.
Attorneys at Law
10213 North Tenth Street
McAllen, Texas 78504

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The wording of House Bill 695 is almost identical to the language contained in House Bill 103, also by Martínez, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Texas House of Representatives in 2019.

House Bill 103 was passed by a supermajority (107 Yeas, 36 Nays, 2 Present Not Voting) of the 150-member House of Representatives on Monday, May 1, 2019.

In 2019, Martínez, serving as the primary author, enjoyed strong support for his House Bill 103 from his fellow Valley state representatives, including Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, and Rep. Rafael M. Anchia, D-Dallas, who served as joint authors of House Bill 103.

In the House of Representatives, the joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, Rep. Óscar Longoria, D-La Joya, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, and Rep. Alex Domínguez, D-Brownsville, rounded out the Valley state representative delegation who also voted for House Bill 103 in 2019.

As with his House Bill 103 in 2019, Martinez’ House Bill 695 for the ongoing 87th Texas Legislature would allow “the governing board of (any) university system” in the state to operate and maintain” the proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law in Hidalgo County or Cameron County.

There are five public university institutions in Texas with a law school:

• The University of Texas System (The University of Texas Law School at Austin);
• The University of Houston System (The University of Houston Law Center in Houston);
• Texas A&M University System (Texas A&M University School of Law in Ft. Worth);
• Texas Tech University System; (Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock); and
• Texas Southern University (Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston).

There are four private university institutions in Texas that operate and maintain a law school:

• Baylor University (Baylor Law School in Waco);
• Southern Methodist University (SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas);
• St. Mary’s University (St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio); and
• South Texas College of Law in Houston.

LANGUAGE OF HOUSE BILL 695 FOR ACTION IN 2021

The process and timetable for the proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law provided by House Bill 695, if approved in its current language, by the 87th Texas Legislature follows:

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A BILL TO BE ENTITLED
AN ACT

relating to the establishment of a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:

SECTION 1.  Subchapter C, Chapter 61, Education Code, is amended by adding Section 61.0905 to read as follows:

Sec. 61.0905.  RIO GRANDE VALLEY SCHOOL OF LAW.  (a)  The governing board of a university system may establish and operate, as a professional school of the system, a school of law in Cameron County or Hidalgo County as the governing board considers appropriate.

(b)  In administering the law school, the governing board may prescribe courses leading to customary degrees offered at other leading American schools of law and may award those degrees.

(c)  The governing board may assign responsibility for the management of the law school to a general academic teaching institution in the university system.

(d)  The governing board may accept and administer gifts and grants from any public or private person or entity for the use and benefit of the law school. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, the establishment of a law school under this section is subject to the availability of funding, either through appropriation or from another source.

(e)  The governing board of a university system that intends to establish a law school under this section shall notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. If the coordinating board receives notification under this subsection from more than one governing board, the coordinating board shall determine which of those governing boards may establish a law school under this section.  The coordinating board must base the determination on the need for a law school in a geographic area, potential student demand, available system resources, the feasibility of the specific proposal of each system, and other criteria the coordinating board considers appropriate.

(f)  Before the governing board establishes a law school under this section, the governing board shall request the coordinating board to prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system must take to obtain accreditation of the law school.  The coordinating board shall deliver a copy of the study to the governing board and to the chair of each legislative standing committee with jurisdiction over higher education.

SECTION 2.  For the purposes of Section 61.0905, Education Code, as added by this Act, no state funds may be appropriated for a state fiscal biennium ending on or before August 31, 2027.

SECTION 3.  This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution.  If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2021.

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HIGHLIGHTS OF HOUSE BILL 103 BY REP. MARTÍNEZ IN 2019

According to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, House Bill 103 in 2019 would have allowed the governing board of a university system to establish and operate a school of law in Cameron County or Hidalgo County.

The governing board could:

• Prescribe courses leading to customary degrees offered at other leading American law schools and award those degrees;
• Assign responsibility for the management of the law school to a general academic teaching institution in the university system; and
• Accept and administer gifts and grants from any public or private or entity for the use and benefit of the law school.

There are a number of reasons to justify the creation of a law school in the Rio Grande Valley, including a need for attorneys along the border, a lack of professional degree opportunities in the area, and the long distances to the nearest law schools, Martínez said.

“There is a disturbingly low attorney to population ratio along the border. According to the State Bar of Texas Department of Research & Analysis, the state ratio is 1 attorney for every 311 residents (1:311). In the Brownsville-Harlingen Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), that ratio is 1:736. For the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA it is 1:805,”  he noted at the time.

In addition to the attorney-population ratios, there is a glaring lack of professional degree opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, he continued.

In 2019, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley offered four active doctoral programs and two cooperative doctoral programs. By comparison, UT-Austin offered 78 doctoral programs and Texas A&M offered 97 doctoral programs. Furthermore, the Rio Grande Valley is geographically isolated from other law schools. For a student from the Valley to attend law school, they would have to move 236 miles away to San Antonio, 305 miles away to Austin, or 341 miles away to Houston.

“HB 103 is a measured approach which will provide educational equity and address the need for professional degree opportunities in a region which has long been neglected,” Martínez said.

The House Research Organization provided the following further background information on House Bill 103.

The establishment of the law school would be subject to the availability of funding either through appropriation or from another source.

The governing board of a system that intended to establish the law school would be required to notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). If more than one governing board notified THECB of their intent to establish a law school, THECB would determine which of the governing boards could establish the law school based on:

• The need for a law school in a geographic area;
• Potential student demand;
• Available system resources;
• The feasibility of each proposal; and
• Other criteria considered appropriate by the board.

The governing board would have to request THECB prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system would have to take to obtain accreditation of the law school. THECB would have to deliver a copy of the study to the governing board and to the chair of each legislative standing committee with jurisdiction over higher education.

$52.5 MILLION PRICE TAG MOST RECENT FINANCIAL ESTIMATE FOR CONSTRUCTION OF LAW SCHOOL BUILDING IN THE VALLEY

In a separate bill analysis of the House Bill 109, called a fiscal note and produced by the Legislative Budget Board:

• For purposes of this fiscal note, it is assumed that The University of Texas System would establish the law school in the fiscal year 2026 when state funding becomes available. Although the bill does not specify how the construction of the law school will be funded, for purposes of this fiscal note it is assumed tuition revenue bonds would be used.

(Tuition revenue bonds are bonds that have their debt serviced by the revenue of the project for which it was issued and pledge a revenue stream provided by income from tuition charges levied against students or institutions specified in the bond covenants. Bonds are issued by governments and corporations when they want to raise money. By buying a bond, an investor is giving the issuer a loan, and they agree to pay the investor back the face value of the loan on a specific date, and to pay the investor periodic interest payments along the way, usually twice a year.

https://investor.vanguard.com/investing/investment/what-is-a-bond)

The fiscal impact of the bill will be broken down between faculty and costs associated with the construction of the law school.

• The University of Texas System indicates that in the fiscal year 2026 they will need to hire a dean and three support staff to start the law school. The total costs for these four FTEs are $795,857. This amount includes salaries in the amount of $589,000 and employee retirement and insurance in the amount of $206,857. There would also be approximately $245,000 for operating expenses, including one-time costs associated with obtaining accreditation from the American Bar Association.

• In the fiscal year 2027, The University of Texas System indicates they would need to hire 11 additional FTEs which includes six faculty and five additional administrative staff in preparation for the first entering class. The total cost for these FTEs is $1,538,654 for salaries and $540,375 for employee benefits. There would also be other operating costs including $55,000  for operating expenses. There would be increases in faculty and administrative staff in the future years reaching 31 FTEs in the fiscal year 2029 as the school grows in enrollment.

• The University of Texas System estimates that the new law school building would cost $52,500,000. Bonds for the law school building are assumed to be issued on September 1, 2025, at a 6 percent interest rate with a 20-year level debt service amortization. Based on calculations prepared by The University of Texas System, the amount of debt service payments would be $4.6 million per year beginning in the fiscal year 2026. The University of Texas System also indicates there would be costs associated with the library collection of approximately $0.9 million per year beginning in the fiscal year 2026.

• While General Revenue funding would be the only method of financing for the fiscal year 2026, beginning in the fiscal year 2027, statutory tuition (Fund 770) and institutional funds (including designated tuition and other fees) will be used to support the operation of the law school. In 2027, it is estimated 100 students would enroll in the first class of the law school. These students would generate approximately $192,000 in statutory tuition and $2.4 million in institutional funds. The revenue from statutory tuition and institutional funds would increase as an additional 50 students are added per year. This revenue would be used to support the operation of the law school, which is represented as a cost to these funds above.

Beginning in the fiscal year 2029, the law school would be eligible for formula funding. The University of Texas system indicates that the law school would generate $1,278,055 in formula general revenue in the fiscal year 2029. The formula funding has been included in the costs associated with the bill.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board indicates that outside consultants, who have experienced with the full procedures of both ABA and SACS accreditation, would be needed for the feasibility studies.  These costs would be absorbed within current resources.

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For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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