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Texas Supreme Court rules against UT Regent Wallace Hall in records case

The quest by University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall to win access to confidential student records is over. The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that Hall had no standing to sue the chancellor of the system he oversees.

UT Regent Wallace Hall speaks at a Texas Tribune event on Sept. 4, 2014.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Wallace Hall’s final days as a University of Texas System regent are ending with a defeat in the Texas Supreme Court. 

The court ruled Friday that Hall had no standing to sue the chancellor of the system he oversees. That likely brings an end to Hall’s last high-profile fight on the UT System board.

Hall had been seeking access to confidential student records. But Chancellor Bill McRaven had state authority to deny it, the court ruled. And since the state has immunity from most lawsuits filed in state court, Hall couldn’t sue, the court ruled.

Still, as Justice John Devine wrote in his opinion affirming McRaven’s victory, the court is “not unsympathetic to Hall’s plight.”

“He seeks information to educate himself and his fellow regents about issues of undeniable importance to the institution,” Devine wrote. “Facts are the greatest ally of those, like Hall, who seek to change the minds of others.”

But Devine said the court is “at the mercy” of the decision made by McRaven.

“Perhaps that scheme is unwise. Perhaps it elevates the status quo above transparency. Perhaps it increases the likelihood that voices in the minority will be stifled. And perhaps it presents none of those dangers,” he wrote.

“But those questions are beyond our reach; the Legislature is the ultimate arbiter of policy at the University of Texas.”

The outcome in the case was unanimous. No justices submitted dissenting opinions, though four did write concurring opinions that agreed with the outcome but gave slightly different reasons or explanations.

Hall had been seeking access to information related to an admissions scandal at UT-Austin.

Almost two years ago, an investigator hired by the system found that the system’s flagship school had admitted students who had powerful connections even though the students seemed not to be qualified. The report didn’t, however, identify who those students were or which powerful connections they had.

Hall was seeking access to unredacted records that presumably would have given him that information. But McRaven said no, and the majority of the Board of Regents backed his decision.

McRaven said the records had confidential student information, like grades and personal statements that might include private information. Federal law prevents the disclosure of those records, even to university administrators if those administrators don’t have a justifiable educational purpose. McRaven said Hall’s aims didn’t seem to qualify.

In legal arguments, Hall’s lawyers said denying their client the records set a dangerous precedent. Hall has oversight duties as a regent, and he can’t perform them if he doesn’t have access to the information he needs, they said. Allowing UT System officials to make that decision would make it easy to cover up wrongdoing.

Hall’s tenure on the board is almost up. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott appointed three new regents, who will replace Hall and his two biggest allies on the board. On Thursday, the Senate Nominations Committee held a hearing on those appointments. The committee is expected to vote on whether to confirm him next week. Then, their confirmation will go to the full Senate.

His time as a regent has been full of strife. He clashed frequently with Bill Powers, who was president of UT-Austin for much of Hall’s tenure.

Hall’s time helped lead to some major changes. Most notably, he played a role in bringing the admissions scandal to light.

But his detractors accused him of conducting a witch hunt against Powers and other UT-Austin leaders. He requested hundreds of thousands of pages of records, leading to complaints that he was overburdening UT-Austin staff.

Read more:

  • The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the long-running legal fight between University of Texas System Regent Wallace Hall and Chancellor Bill McRaven.
  • One day after Gov. Greg Abbott appointed three new University of Texas System regents, the Senate has scheduled a confirmation hearing. One of the regents being replaced, Wallace Hall, is asking the Senate and Abbott to slow the process down.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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