Law professor champions civil rights, education issues

November 13, 2019

Teachable moment

by Frank Garza

Professor Al Kauffman visits Memorial High School

As he approached the bench, Albert Kauffman, J.D., knew this case would be an uphill battle.

The public school education finance case, Edgewood ISD v. Kirby, had previously been won at the district court level, but was overturned by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas. Now, it was before the Supreme Court of Texas in 1989.

Kauffman, then-senior litigating attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), shuffled his notes, pushed up his glasses, cleared his throat and began speaking.

“We are here today to determine whether the Texas Constitution requires the Legislature of Texas to treat people equally – especially to treat students equally – and to meet the legislature’s constitutional duty to establish a suitable and efficient school finance system,” said Kauffman, now Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University.

The facts, Kauffman said, were “egregious.” The 300,000 children in the wealthiest districts had access to 25% of the state’s wealth, and the 300,000 children in the poorest districts could only draw from a measly 3%.

The court unanimously agreed. Justice Oscar Mauzy, who penned the opinion, called the remedy “long overdue.”

“The amount of money spent on a student’s education has a real and meaningful impact on the educational opportunity offered that student,” Mauzy wrote.

“We thought we had mastered the world,” said the victorious Kauffman, who has since become a master of the lecture hall as well as the courtroom.

Around the same time, Kauffman also litigated LULAC v. Richards, resulting in a tremendous amount of funding for higher education in the Rio Grande Valley for the Ph.D. programs at the former University of Texas-Pan American, and for building both the former University of Texas at Brownsville and Laredo’s Texas A&M International University.

Kauffman, who left MALDEF in 2002, has litigated many cases throughout his legal career, including affirmative action, local and state voting rights, employment discrimination, immigration and hospital admission policy cases.

In his 12 years of teaching at the School of Law, Kauffman has come to love the students at St. Mary’s and they’ve reciprocated, twice selecting him as a Law Commencement hooding officer.

“Putting the hoods on them, patting them on the back, shaking their hands, and watching as they were going through one of their defining moments, I got emotional,” he said. “I’m just amazed at how resilient our students are. I’m proud of them.”

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