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Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who has made a name for himself nationally representing the families of victims of police brutality, is getting ahead of his race to become the top lawyer in Texas because he n is not licensed to practice in the state.
He represented the families of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who was shot and killed in his apartment by a Dallas police officer; George Floyd, a 46-year-old man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes; and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man who was chased through a Georgia neighborhood by three white men and then shot dead.
In his bid for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, Merritt lined up an impressive list of endorsements, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Dallas State Senator Royce West and US Senator Bernie Sanders.
But as Merritt’s star has risen, wonder about his Texas criminal record.
The state constitution does not require the attorney general to be licensed to practice law. But this question is not the only shadow that hangs over his practice. Merritt has also had notable blunders, such as when he represented a woman in 2018 who falsely accused a Department of Public Safety soldier of sexually assaulting her. Merritt brought the incident to national attention, but police camera footage disproved it days later, forcing him to apologize for the misstep.
During a Democratic primary debate hosted by the AFL-CIO union in January, candidate Joe Jaworski referred to Merritt’s lack of a Texas license and said his ability to practice law in the state was a “big difference.” between the two candidates.
“I have a law degree from Texas and I’ve had it for 31 years,” Jaworski, the former mayor of Galveston, said during the debate. “Lee, I have great respect for his practice of civil rights – I think he really is a tremendous agent of social change – [but] that’s a big difference between us. He must be able to show that he can go to a Texas state court, like an attorney general should.
Merritt, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, said he was in the process of obtaining a license. “I’m working on it,” he said. “I do this because it helps minimize confusion, but I don’t see it as an office necessity.”
Jaworski declined to comment for this story, as did Rochelle Garza, one of the other contestants in the race. The primary is March 1.
Mike Fields, another candidate in the race, said it could create a “strange situation” if the attorney general’s employees met a requirement that the elected official did not, but he granted Merritt the benefit of the doubt.
“It shouldn’t hamper his ability to do the job, but I understand the concern,” Fields said. “From what I’ve heard from him and looking at his story, he’s certainly up to the task, and I think he’s rectifying that. But it’s going to be between him and the bar of the State.
The other main race candidates are all licensed to practice in Texas.
In the GOP primary, Lands Commissioner George P. Bush faced similar questions from opponents about his law degree after classifying it as inactive in 2010 while deployed to Afghanistan. . His license is now active. Bush runs against incumbent Ken Paxton; former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman; and U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.
The Texas Attorney General is responsible for representing the state in all legal matters and providing legal advice to the Governor and other members of the executive when requested.
Randall Erben, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Merritt’s lack of a license wouldn’t prevent him from being able to do the job because the attorney general usually leaves court cases to the hundreds of lawyers in his office who specialize in different areas of law.
“[The attorney general’s] has a whole civil litigation unit, a federal appeals unit, a solicitor general — those are the people who actually go to the courthouse on behalf of the state, and they’re presumably authorized,” Erben said.
“If you’re asking if there’s a constitutional or statutory impediment, there isn’t,” Erben added. “It’s up to Democratic primary voters whether this impacts their opinion of Mr. Merritt.”
Merritt is licensed in Pennsylvania, where he studied law at Temple University in Philadelphia and is a partner in a law firm. His Texas law firm is a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania firm, he said. He was previously licensed in New Jersey, but that license has expired. Merritt was admitted to practice in federal courts, where his entire civil rights practice is handled, he said.
He moved to Texas in 2015 with his then wife. The two divorced that summer, but Merritt continued to maintain a residence in North Texas and began taking on clients in the state. He is originally from Los Angeles.
Merritt said he is running for attorney general on a platform of criminal justice reform, protecting the right to vote and defending a person’s right to an abortion.
During the AFL-CIO debate, Merritt said he had suspended his civil rights practice during the campaign, but planned to pursue his admission to the Texas bar without having to take the bar exam.
Merritt could do this by showing the Texas Board of Law Examiners that he practiced law in a U.S. state or territory or in Washington, D.C., and be able to document that he was “actively and substantially engaged in the legal practice of law as their main business or occupation for at least five of the last seven years”.
Merritt told the Dallas Morning News in 2018, and told the Texas Tribune again this week, that he was seeking admission to the Texas bar because he was already admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.
However, the Texas Board of Law Examiners said the board had not received such a request.
Merritt acknowledged that he was waiting for “some slightly more tedious requirements to complete” before he could complete the application. These include obtaining his law school transcripts and providing his fingerprints and a reputable certification from the Pennsylvania Bar.
Previously, Merritt said he chose not to be licensed in the state because of the history of Southern state bars targeting civil rights lawyers. State bars would deny them the ability to appear in federal court or arrest them on pain of criminalizing the unauthorized practice of law.
Because of this, Merritt said he “decided not to join the Texas bar so that I could continue to fight for Texans across the state.”
Merritt’s lack of a license drew the attention of the Unlicensed Practice of Law Committee in 2018 after someone filed a complaint that he was practicing in the state without a license. The committee is a pro bono investigative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.
In a federal court filing, Merritt’s attorney said the investigation was spurred by Merritt’s depiction of a Fort Worth woman who was tackled to the ground by a police officer when she called for report an assault on her son.
In February 2018, Merritt and the committee entered a final consent judgment that barred him from practicing or representing himself as an attorney in state law matters. Six months later, the committee sued Merritt for violating that agreement, alleging that he continued to represent clients on matters related to state courts. A Collin County judge later ruled against the committee.
Merritt said in each case that he acted as an advocate for the clients as he prepared to file federal lawsuits on their behalf. He also said the committee’s decision was a politically motivated attempt to shut down his civil rights work.
The investigation wasn’t the only challenge his legal career faced that year.
In May 2018, Merritt represented Sherita Dixon-Cole of Grapevine, who claimed a DPS trooper arrested and sexually assaulted her.
In a statement at the time, Merritt claimed the officer offered to let her go in exchange for sexual favors and when she refused, the officer sexually assaulted her.
With the help of activist Shaun King, a friend of Merritt’s from Morehouse College who has a million Twitter followers, the story captured national attention.
But three days later, the DPS released police camera video that refuted Dixon-Cole’s claims.
“The department is appalled that anyone brings such a despicable, libelous and false accusation against a peace officer who willingly risks his life every day to protect and serve the public,” the department said in a statement at the time.
Merritt issued an apology. A lawsuit was never filed.
“It is deeply disturbing when innocent people are falsely accused, and I am truly sorry for any trouble these allegations may have caused Officer Hubbard and his family,” Merritt said. “I take full responsibility for amplifying these claims to the point of national concern.”
Merritt told the Tribune that civil rights lawyers “often have to fight in the dark,” and getting attention for their cases, as well as the rapid release of evidence, requires “making noise.” He said he dropped the case within 24 hours of the video being released.
“I was sorry that someone had been slandered in the process, but I was doing my job, which was to access the evidence and investigate the allegations,” he said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune‘journalism. Find a full list here.