MERCEDES, Texas—David Hall – who has led Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) from its early days defending South Texas farm workers with a handful of attorneys through its transformation into the nation’s third largest legal aid provider, serving 25,000 people annually – has announced his retirement.
Describing Hall’s 42-year leadership of TRLA, John Henneberger, a leading expert on housing in Texas and a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, said, “David and the people he leads at TRLA are legendary in Texas colonias, barrios and poor neighborhoods for their aggressive, fearless, first-rate lawyering for the most impoverished and oppressed Texans.”
“He’s never shied away from a fight. He has cut a broad swath in Texas for longer than almost anyone else has been doing social justice work. During these increasingly difficult times for the poor in Texas, I pray that whoever steps forward to take over for David will find the courage and skill required to support the continuing struggle for equal justice.”
In a statement to staff, Hall said a hiring committee selected by TRLA’s Board of Directors and its president would conduct a nationwide, comprehensive search for his replacement. “TRLA is thriving and its future is in strong, reliable hands, so I feel comfortable about retiring,” Hall wrote. “For decades, the TRLA board has been not only congenial but also incredibly supportive of our zealous advocacy for the communities we serve. I have no doubt that the same spirit will direct their efforts in finding the next TRLA director.”
“It has been my honor and privilege to work alongside colleagues and friends with such inspiring values, compassion and dedication for justice,” Hall continued. “Siga la lucha.”
Following a stint in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, Hall studied law at the University of Texas at Austin. From there, he watched with concern as underpaid, exploited Rio Grande Valley farm workers began to strike for better wages and conditions in the 1960s. Years later, he would tell Texas Lawyer magazine that he realized, “If I could be a lawyer where I could do some good, it would probably be there.”
After graduating, he worked as an attorney in the Valley for the United Farm Workers and the ACLU. In 1970, what was then called Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA) was started by Corpus Christi attorney James DeAnda, who later became the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Hall, who, as a law student, had talked at length with DeAnda about the need for legal aid in the Valley, joined TRLA as a board member in 1970. Five years later, he became its executive director.
During the 1970s, Hall was on the front lines of legal battles that brought desperately-needed change to the Valley. While at the ACLU, he was lead counsel in suits to get running water and sanitation services in hundreds of poor colonias in Hidalgo County. He sued to get the county to allow Mexican-American colonia residents to be elected to the county’s water district. Fonseca v. Hidalgo County. Water Improvement Dist. No. 2, 496 F.2d 109 (1974); Jiménez v. Hidalgo County. Water Improvement Dist. No. 2, 496 F.2d 113 (1974).
In 1977, he argued and won a Supreme Court case that brought reform to Texas’ discriminatory process for grand jury selection. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Hidalgo County grand juries systematically and unconstitutionally excluded Mexican-Americans. Castaneda v. Partida 430 U.S. 482 (1977). He played a supporting role in the 1974 Supreme Court case that brought the Texas Rangers, who had retaliated brutally against striking workers at La Casita Farms, under the control of the Department of Public Safety. Effectively, the case brought reform to the rogue Rangers. Allee v. Medrano 416 U.S. 802 (1974).
Under Hall’s guidance, TRLA in 1985 defended picketing onion workers in a case that was removed to U.S. District Court in Amarillo as a federal civil rights case. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson’s decision threw out seven state restrictions on picketing, ruling that they violated free speech. Howard Gault Co. v. Texas Rural Legal Aid, Inc., 615 F. Supp. 916, 925 (N.D. Tex. 1985). One of the defendants, Deaf Smith County Sheriff Travis McPherson, vented his frustration with TRLA’s enfranchisement of farm workers. “I think that [TRLA] is the problem, because they’re supplying these people with the information, and they’re telling them all about the federal laws and everything,” he told growers and packers at a conference.
For this and subsequent work, Texas Lawyer honored Hall as one of the 25 “greatest” Texas lawyers of the past quarter century and named him a “Legal Legend,” among 100 attorneys who shaped the state’s legal history. “I think David’s shoes were bigger than that,” said Jim Harrington, former executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who worked with Hall in the Valley. “He shaped the Valley’s history. People do not realize what the Valley was like in ’66 and ’67 and ’70 and ’80. David has done an enormous job in bringing justice.”
Hall led TRLA through rocky years as the federal government sought to defund legal aid organizations in the 1980s. Texas state government – using the newly created Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation – stepped in to help fill the gap. Under Hall’s leadership, TRLA’s now 175 civil and criminal lawyers provide free legal services to low-income Texas residents of all backgrounds, including veterans, homeless people, the elderly and the disabled, and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. TRLA provides legal assistance in 43 civil legal practice areas, including environmental justice, civil rights, international child abduction, special education, disability rights, immigration, employment discrimination, and the rights of migrant and seasonal farm workers.
“David Hall’s consistency and determination in the pursuit of the cause of justice is an enduring legacy,” said David Richards, a leading Texas civil rights lawyer. “The fact that he could at the same time maintain a sense of humor about the vagaries of the world around him is equally remarkable.”
In 2002 TRLA, under Hall’s leadership, merged with four other legal aid organizations in San Antonio, El Paso, Austin, and the Coastal Bend. The expanded organization, renamed Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, serves 68 counties in Southwest Texas. Special projects have expanded TRLA’s service further. Its Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault covers North and West Texas as well as South and Southwest Texas, and its Southern Migrant Legal Services serves migrant and seasonal farm workers in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
Hall was early to act on recognition that legal assistance is instrumental to improving health care for low-income people. In 2011, he established a medical-legal partnership with the Brownsville Community Health Center. Patients faced with social and economic barriers to their health – dirty, unsafe housing and difficult-to-access public benefits, for example – could then get help from lawyers. TRLA now has four medical legal partnerships in Texas. For the Brownsville work, he and the health clinic’s executive director, Paula Gómez, were named by the White House as 2011 “Champions of Change.” Hall and his fellow honorees “have made extraordinary contributions to their communities and in helping low-income Americans find solutions to their pressing civil legal problems,” said James J. Sandman, president of the national Legal Services Corp., which funds legal aid organizations throughout the country.
In recent years, Hall has created TRLA’s public defender program to serve rural counties, which led to TRLA’s selection for the 2017 Gideon Award from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. TRLA now serves as the public defender in eight South Texas counties, providing systemic, holistic representation for indigent Texans who would otherwise have to rely on underpaid private attorneys who are willing to accept court appointments. The state grants one-half of the funding for the TRLA defender program, the other half coming from participating counties.
TRLA has continued to win game-changing lawsuits, including the 2007 suit filed against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by La Union del Pueblo Unido (LUPE) and numerous Valley residents whose houses were damaged by Hurricane Dolly. The case ended with a 2017 ruling that FEMA’s failure to disclose its standards for denying disaster aid violated federal law and resulted in a settlement granting plaintiffs thousands of dollars in disaster assistance. A subsequent suit was recently filed in the federal court in the District of Columbia challenging other unpublished FEMA rules applied to flooding disasters in 2015 and 2016.
In 2008, TRLA defended hundreds of mothers from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose children were taken away by Child Protective Services during a raid on the group’s settlement in El Dorado. Though the group was controversial, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with TRLA that there was no evidence that the vast majority of the children were in danger, which required their return to their mothers. Citing the case, Texas Lawyer chose TRLA as its 2008 “Impact Player of the Year.” That year, the State Bar’s Poverty Law Section also selected Hall as the first recipient of its highest honor, the Noble Award, for a lifetime of professional achievement in poverty law.
“David was fighting the forces of darkness long before many folks even knew that evil existed in Texas,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE. “David leaves a legacy that lives in the hearts of so many people, a positive difference that will not be soon forgotten. We are proud to call David a friend who has never run from a good fight!”
In his honor, his friends will establish the David G. Hall Fellowship in public interest law.
Selected Honors, Awards and Appointments
1978: State Bar of Texas: Legal Services Award
1984: “Hero of the People” award by the Texas Observer.
1993: American Bar Association, Section on Litigation: John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award
1994: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1994. Recognition award to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the Mexican-American community in Texas.
1996: United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Recognition award presented by President Cesar Chavez for outstanding service to farm workers.
2000: The Texas Lawyer Magazine: Legal Legend Award: A Century of Texas Law and Lawyering. Recognition as one of 100 Texas lawyers who shaped the state’s legal history in the 20th century.
2007: Recognized for service to farm workers by the Midwest Association of Farmworkers (MAFO).
2008: State Bar of Texas Poverty Law Section: the 2008 Noble Award in Poverty Law
2010: Texas Supreme Court: Commissioner, Texas Access to Justice Commission.
2010: Texas Lawyer magazine: “25 Greatest Texas Lawyers of The Past Quarter Century.”
2011: White House “Champions of Change” award for lifetime service and achievement in closing the justice gap.
2011: Hidalgo County Bar Association (HCBA) Ethics Award 2011.
2012: Texas Supreme Court: Task Force to Expand Legal Services.
2012: Texas Civil Rights Project: Emma Tenayuca Award.