Civil rights

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt ready to fight for Texas attorney general


Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt expected to cross paths with Republicans when he moved to Dallas in 2015.

In a way, that’s why he came to Texas in the first place.

“Where are you going if you want to change the face of civil rights in this country? Merritt asked during an interview with Ion Wednesday about his campaign to be the Democratic candidate for attorney general.

You are going to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, he continued, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The 5th Circuit regularly produces some of the country’s most conservative opinions on a variety of topics, including those Merritt has focused on since becoming a lawyer, such as qualified immunity and police liability.

“This is a place where civil rights lawyers are going to be targeted,” Merritt said cheerfully.

Merritt isn’t a man who backs down from a fight, and it was true even before he launched his first statewide campaign last July. If elected, he would be the first black attorney general in the state’s history.

Merritt began his career as an educator, teaching in Camden. NJ, through the Teach for America program after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta. The Temple University Law School graduate became a lawyer so he could do more, and since then he has: as the founder of the Merritt law firm, he took charge of rights cases civics across the country, representing victims of police brutality and other forms of racial injustice.

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In 2017, Merritt represented the family of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old boy who was fatally shot by a police officer in Balch Springs; Edwards was black and the officer who killed him was convicted of his murder. In 2018, Merritt became a lawyer for the family of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot and killed in her own home by a Fort Worth police officer; this officer has been charged with murder and is due to stand trial later this year.

Merritt also represents the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man from Georgia who was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging one afternoon near his home in February. 2020. The three attackers were found guilty of Arbery. murder in November and Friday were sentenced to life in prison.

As a result of this type of work, Merritt was summarily brought to justice by the Texas Supreme Court’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee – did you know such a thing even exists? – and accused of practicing state law without a license. As he did not, the charges were quickly dropped.

The entire episode, according to Merritt’s assessment, unfolded as usual in one direction: Civil rights lawyers in the Southern states, in particular, have often faced such setback.

“When I got to Texas, I signed up for this,” he told me. “I’m a history student at Morehouse College, and, you know, when I said I was inspired by the Thurgood Marshalls of the world, that was their whole story. My heroes have often paid for their convictions with their lives.

“Not to become biblical,” he continued, “but the Bible says, ‘Count all on joy. “”

The Democratic primary is contested. Merritt competes with former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, former ACLU attorney Rochelle Garza, Dallas-based attorney Stephen “T-Bone” Raynor and Mike Fields, a former Republican County Criminal Court judge. Harris.

Republicans have a heated primary in this race as well, with Attorney General Ken Paxton facing challenges from Land Commissioner George P. Bush, East Texas Tory Congressman Louie Gohmert and former Justice Justice. Supreme Court of Texas Eva Guzmán. Paxton has been charged since 2015 with the misdemeanor of securities fraud, a case that has yet to be tried; he claims his innocence.

Many political observers believe Paxton will pass the primary, backed by the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump. Still, all of the activity in the Attorney General’s race this year is a measure of how vulnerable Paxton is.

He was re-elected by less than 4 points against Democrat Justin Nelson in 2018, the year of Democrats’ “blue wave” in many ways. He went on to distinguish himself in large part for his devotion to the disgraced ex-president, most notably in a lawsuit contesting election results in four states won by Democrat Joe Biden: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the Wisconsin. The United States Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Texas did not have standing to bring it.

“One of the reasons I was able to get in touch with (Georgia Attorney General) Chris Carr was that he was being sued by the Texas Attorney General,” Merritt noted, explaining that Carr had been clear-headed about to the need for Arbery’s killers to face Justice.

Merritt’s campaign is one to watch ahead of the March 1 primary in Texas.

His unequivocal advocacy on racial justice and other civil rights issues may be troubling to some moderate Democrats, who would prefer all-state candidates to focus on the center – that vast political terrain that Republicans, including Paxton, have largely given up.

Merritt, however, has the backing of progressive groups such as the Texas Organizing Project, which approved his candidacy for the Democratic nomination last month. He also has compelling arguments to make to voters, especially black and brown voters, who have seen Republican heads of state systematically undermine voting rights and political representation in Texas.

The game is not stacked in favor of civil rights lawyers, Merritt observed dryly. Still, he played a role in some historic fights.

“I’m not trying to preach to you this morning, but by sticking to the Bible reference I have the experience of beating the lion and beating the bear,” Merritt said Wednesday.

He added, simply: “I know we can win, and I’m not afraid of them.”

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