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Publisher pushes for law schools

The Miami Herald publisher and business leaders lobby lawmakers for campuses in South and Central Florida.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY and BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A plan to build new public law schools in Miami and in Central Florida gained momentum Thursday after the publisher of the Miami Herald and several business leaders pitched the idea to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Publisher Alberto Ibarguen and a handful of Miami executives took a chartered plane to Tallahassee early Thursday, hoping to breathe new life into the proposal.

The two schools would be located in the state's most racially and ethnically diverse regions, with the goal of drawing minority and part-time students.

Until Thursday, Ibarguen's opinions on the matter have been reflected solely on the editorial page of his newspaper.

"The Herald has already editorialized in favor of the law schools," a confident Ibarguen said at a news conference called after the meeting with Bush. "I'm really here as a businessman."

Florida has two public law schools, one at the University of Florida in Gainesville and another at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Under the proposal, the new schools would be operated by Florida International University in Miami, which has a heavily Hispanic student body, and by historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The FAMU law school would be operated as a branch campus in Central Florida.

Opponents of the plan, including the Florida Bar, have asked whether Florida needs more lawyers.

"It's a good question, but we do need more minority lawyers," said Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Miami Republican driving the plan.

Although more than 30 percent of Floridians are members of a racial or ethnic minority, only about 8 percent of its attorneys are minorities. About 2 percent of Florida Bar members are black.

The Miami group joined Diaz-Balart and Tampa Sen. Jim Hargrett, a Democrat, at meetings with Bush, House Speaker John Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings and other legislative leaders.

Ibarguen said the meetings left him optimistic that the Legislature will pass the bill.

"I got that sense from all of them. I think it will get to the governor's office," he said. "(Bush) said I'd like to see the bill."

Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie said after the meeting, "The governor is open to the idea. He's been saying he's willing to look into it."

The Senate has budgeted $5-million to get both schools off the ground, but the House budget includes nothing for the project. The two chambers are now meeting to work out differences in spending plans.

Diaz-Balart said FIU and FAMU predict the two schools could operate each year on about $10-million combined. Getting money for the first year may require a reduction in some graduate scholarships for minorities, Diaz-Balart said.

The schools would allow students to specialize in legal aspects of technology and international trade.

"The speaker listened to their concerns and promised to keep an open mind on the issue," Thrasher spokeswoman Katie Baur said after the meeting. Senate President Toni Jennings, a Republican from Orlando, supports the new schools.

University system Chancellor Adam Herbert has told lawmakers he would prefer to increase outreach to minorities at existing schools. But Herbert has also said he would consider supporting a branch campus law school in South Florida, or one run by FAMU, which lost its law school in 1968.

Whether the proposed school in Central Florida ends up in Tampa or Orlando is less important than ensuring that a school is built somewhere along the growing I-4 corridor, according to Sen. Hargrett. "It will be in commuting distance," he said.

Ibarguen said Thursday was the first time he had made such direct plea for a project the Herald favored in its editorials.

He said he and Bush "are not pals." But he said he was passionate in his belief that law schools in diverse, urban areas would improve opportunity for minorities.

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