Thomas Mitchell (LLM ’99) Named 2020 MacArthur Fellow

The “genius grant” will help Mitchell further his mission to help disadvantaged families and communities maintain ownership of their property and real estate wealth.

Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell, a property law scholar, was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow for his work in reforming laws and developing policy solutions that help Black and other disadvantaged families deprived of land, home, or real estate wealth. Known as the “genius grant,” the MacArthur fellowship is considered to be among the most prestigious prizes in academia. The distinction comes with a $625,000 stipend. Mitchell was one of twenty-one fellows in the 2020 class.

He is the principal drafter of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which was promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission to improve the ability of families that own heirs’ property to preserve their real estate wealth. It has been enacted in seventeen states and the US Virgin Islands.

Heirs’ property, a subset of tenancy-in-common property, tends to be created in the absence of a will or estate plan and results in “undivided ownership,” which means each of the legally defined heirs owns a fractional interest in the property (rather than a specific piece or portion of the property). After several generations, ownership of land and other property, including single-family homes, may be fragmented among many heirs, any one of whom can sell their fractional ownership or seek to force a sale of the land, with or without the agreement of all owners.

The UPHPA’s three principal reforms — a co-owner buyout provision, guidance for courts to apply both economic and their deliberations about how to resolve a partition action, and an innovative sales procedure designed to produce prices approximating a property’s fair market value — will enable more families to avoid involuntary and predatory disposition of their real estate.

Through his continuing advocacy to enact the UPHPA into law in several additional states and his other state and national law reform and policy work, Mitchell is remedying a major factor in the racial wealth gap and creating mechanisms for many more disadvantaged property owners and communities throughout the country to secure their land and preserve their wealth.

“Individuals with stable property rights are better able to participate in meaningful ways in our society. Growing up in San Francisco, I witnessed with much sadness the dramatic displacement of African-American residents and businesses that occurred in part because the people affected lacked secure property rights,” said Mitchell in a statement. “As a lawyer, I realized that certain property laws needed to be changed and better policies needed to be developed to give urban and rural African Americans, and other vulnerable people, stronger property rights that could enable them to build wealth and preserve important aspects of their history and culture.”

Mitchell, a graduate of UW Law School’s William H. Hastie Fellowship Program, was a professor at UW Law School before joining the Texas A&M faculty in 2016.