Prof. Mitchell Attends Signing of a Property Act that He Helped Write

September 22, 2016

Thomas-MitchellProfessor Thomas W. Mitchell

Texas A&M University School of Law Professor Thomas W. Mitchell ​was invited by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s office to attend the ceremonial signing of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) on Thursday, Sept. 22.

The UPHPA is a uniform act promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), the organization with the longest record in this country in terms of developing uniform acts (what most people typically refer to as model state statutes). The act was developed to address problems many families in this country have faced with respect to property families own under a common ownership structure called a tenancy in common, which is the most prevalent form of common ownership of real property in the United States. Within many communities, such property is often referred to as heirs’ property. Under current state partition laws, state courts have ordered many forced sales of heirs’ property holdings. These sales typically have yielded prices well below market value, stripping many families of their real estate wealth in addition to their property rights.

The Act seeks to make heirs’ property ownership more secure and to ensure that in cases in which a court does order a sale of heirs’ property that the sales actually yield a fair price so that the families can at least retain the real estate wealth associated with their heirs’ property ownership.

Mitchell had significant roles in the act. He served on the American Bar Association’s Property Preservation Task Force that developed the proposal requesting the ULC to form a committee to draft a uniform partition act. He served as the Reporter, the person given primary responsibility for drafting a uniform act. He has also been very involved in the effort to get the UPHPA enacted into law by testifying before state legislatures, publishing law review and other articles on the topic, making presentations to legal organizations and community groups, and more.

He is just the second African-American ever to serve as a Reporter for the ULC in its 124-year history, a period of time in which the ULC has drafted more than 350 uniform acts.

mitchell-sc-govPhoto credit: Camlin Moore
Ed Mullins (left), commissioner for the South Carolina delegation of the Uniform Law Commission, Professor Thomas Mitchell, and South Carolina Rep​. James E. Smith, Jr., primary sponsor of the UPHPA in the South Carolina House of Representatives, with South Carolina Gov​. Nikki Haley for the ceremonial signing of the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act

In South Carolina, where the ceremonial signing took place in Gov. Haley’s office in the state capitol, the bill was renamed the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act in honor of the late pastor and Senator Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston.

“He [Pinckney] had long been the biggest proponent in the South Carolina legislature for reform of property law to benefit poor and disadvantaged heirs’ property owners and it is incredibly humbling that his colleagues decided to name our act after him,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell said he ​was “deeply touched and honored” ​to be among a small number of invited guests and hopes to learn more about Senator Pinckney’s tireless work with disadvantaged property owners at the ceremony. He ha​d never met or worked with Gov. Haley, but was excited to meet her as well.

“The reason I am particularly happy about this milestone is that South Carolina represents ground zero with respect to partition action abuses,” he said. “Because heirs’ property owners in South Carolina have been victimized for some many decades, most people believed that South Carolina was off the table in terms of states that would consider the UPHPA. The received wisdom was that the act stood no chance of becoming law in South Carolina because those who would likely oppose any effort to get it enacted into law were simply too powerful to overcome. Now that South Carolina has enacted it into law, other states once considered off the table are now in play.”

So far, eight states have enacted the UPHPA. Mitchell expects several states to consider it over the course of the next few years. For 2017 alone, thus far, it seems likely that it will be introduced in Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and West Virginia.