Mitchell’s Legal Reform Efforts Serve as Foundation for Princeton National Case Study

July 20, 2018

Texas A&M University School of Law Professor Thomas W. Mitchell’s research and work resulting in the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) serves as the foundation for a Princeton University Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS) case study published in January 2018.

Mitchell, who served as the Law School's interim dean from August 2017 through July 2018, is co-director of the Program in Real Estate and Community Development Law.  His primary research interests focus on real property issues that impact poor and disadvantaged communities, many of which are rural. More broadly, he researches issues of economic inequality, specifically focusing on how the ability or inability of individuals or communities to build and retain assets can impact inequality.

The UPHPA, principally drafted by Mitchell, is designed to enhance property right protections for families who own what is referred to as heirs’ property, which is property that is often transferred within families from one generation to another by intestacy and not by wills. A substantial percentage of disadvantaged families do not make wills. Real estate speculators and others have often sought to acquire such property through court-ordered forced sales against the wishes of most heirs’ property owners. Such sales have often stripped families of a significant part of their real estate wealth. The UPHPA outlines who owns what through defining and defending heirs’ property.

The UPHPA has now been enacted into law in 11 states, including Texas.

The ISS case study, titled “A Huge Problem in Plain Sight”: Untangling Heirs’ Property Rights in the American South, 2001-2017,” examines how the work of Mitchell and others offer solutions to the seemingly insoluble challenge of heir’s property rights. Mitchell’s research served as a catalyst to effect economic and statutory change.

ISS, a program of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, began in 2008. The ISS case studies offer detailed accounts of reform efforts and government innovations, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. ISS supports public servants, policy makers and scholars “who lead institutional reform under difficult conditions.”

ISS Director Jennifer Widner said the ISS was interested in Mitchell’s work because it provides solutions to how reformers can succeed despite many challenges.

“Although heirs’ property is distinctive, it creates some of the same kinds of problems we see elsewhere,” Widner said. “Many other countries are trying to define new forms of occupancy rights to help poorer households gain access to basic services, and we felt it was valuable for them both to hear that they are not alone and to contemplate some of the partial solutions tried in, say, Louisiana, which had tried to create heirship affidavits. We also hope the case study will be useful for teaching purposes in U.S. law schools and public management programs,” continued Widner.

Gabriel Kuris, author of the ISS heirs’ property case study, said Mitchell’s research provided much of the information he needed to begin and complete his case study.

“Thomas Mitchell is a singular authority on heirs’ property law in America, and his work came up very quickly when I began my research. His articles not only laid out the laws and issues and arguments for reform, but also tied the topic to larger questions about the inequities of longstanding laws that many Americans take for granted,” Kuris said.

Both Kuris and Widner agreed that Mitchell’s research proves that reform is possible. “As he [Mitchell] said in my case study, ‘there is always hope,’” Kuris said. Widner agreed.

“Part of our mission is to help understand how change happens in core institutions. How do problems come to attention? Why do governments act on some issues and not others? What steps do public servants—broadly defined to include civic leaders—take to ensure implementation?” ​said Widner.

“In this instance, Dean Mitchell played a very important role in drawing attention to the issue and getting it before the institution that could make a big difference, the Uniform Law Commission. It took his investment, the Commission, several state legislatures and some dedicated people at universities and civic organizations to make a difference,” Widner said.

Not only was Mitchell resourceful but Kuris also describes him as very helpful. “Dean Mitchell not only gave me his time and attention and a lot of great quotes, he helped review my work for accuracy. I felt very warmly welcomed to Texas A&M Law when I visited a few months ago, and it’s clear that Dean Mitchell has great affection for, and dedication to, the campus community,” Kuris said.

“My case study lays out how reforms dismissed as hopeless became possible when an organized, strategic and broad coalition of reformers took advantage of a window of opportunity created after the turn of the millennium, when events like Hurricane Katrina exposed the challenges facing heirs’ property owners,” Kuris said.

Widner said ISS readers are interested in both global and local reform challenges.

“The vast majority of our case studies are situated in emerging democracies. Our readers often request U.S. examples as well. America’s land laws are unique in many ways, but the issues with those laws are universal. Everywhere in the world, people struggle over how to fairly divvy up property rights. Heirs’ property issues resonate particularly with postcolonial experiences in Caribbean and African nations,” Widner said.

The impact of the heirs’ property research and resulting innovations initiated by Mitchell and others chronicled in the ISS study ​is both local and global, immediate and far-reaching. For instance, the reforms helped Louisiana and Texas landowners without clear title to access disaster relief and loans to rebuild their homes after recent hurricanes and floods. Internationally, Widner said the ISS has been working with the Omidyar Network to profile possible solutions to land tenure insecurity in many parts of the world.

- Article by Tyra Kelly, Texas A&M University School of Law