Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt takes heat for lack of Texas law license in his bid for attorney general

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt announced his campaign for attorney general last summer at the Texas Capitol. (Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune, Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who has made a name for himself nationally by representing the families of police brutality victims, is taking heat ahead of his race to be Texas’ top lawyer because he’s not licensed to practice in the state.

He has 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 to death.

In his bid for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, Merritt has lined up an impressive list of endorsements including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Dallas state Sen. Royce West and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But as Merritt’s star has risen, so have questions about his legal record in Texas.

The state constitution does not require the attorney general to be licensed to practice law. But that question isn’t the only shadow hanging over his practice. Merritt has also experienced notable blunders, like when he represented a woman in 2018 who falsely accused a Department of Public Safety trooper of sexually assaulting her. Merritt brought national attention to the incident, but police camera footage disproved it just days later, forcing him to apologize for the misstep.

During a Democratic primary debate hosted by the AFL-CIO labor union in January, candidate Joe Jaworski brought up 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 Texas law license and I’ve had it for 31 years,” said Jaworski, the former Galveston mayor, during the debate. “Lee, I have great respect for his civil rights practice — I think he is truly an awesome agent of social change — [but] that is a big difference between us. He needs to be able to show that he can go into Texas state court, like an attorney general should.”

Merritt, in an interview with The Texas Tribune, said he’s in the process of getting licensed. “I am working on it,” he said. “I’m doing that because it helps minimize confusion, but I don’t see it as a necessity of the office.”

Jaworski declined to comment for this story, as did Rochelle Garza, one of the other candidates in the race. The primary is March 1.

Mike Fields, another candidate in the race, said it could create a “weird situation” if the employees under the attorney general had met a requirement that the elected official had not, but he gave Merritt the benefit of the doubt.

“It shouldn’t impede his ability to do the job, but I understand the concern,” Fields said. “Based on what I’ve heard from him and looking at his history, certainly he’s up to the task, and I think he’s rectifying that situation. But that’s gonna be between him and the state bar.”

The other major candidates in the race are all licensed to practice in Texas.

In the GOP primary, Land Commissioner George P. Bush faced similar questions from opponents about his law license after he classified it as inactive in 2010 when he deployed to Afghanistan. His license is now active. Bush is running against the incumbent, Ken Paxton; former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman; and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler.

The Texas attorney general is responsible for representing the state in all legal matters and giving legal advice to the governor and other executive officers when it is requested.

Randall Erben, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Merritt’s lack of a license would not stop him from being able to do the job because the attorney general generally leaves court cases to the hundreds of lawyers in his office who specialize in different areas of the law.

“[The attorney general’s] got a whole civil litigation unit, federal appeals unit, solicitor general — those are the people who are actually going into the courthouse on behalf of the state, and presumably they’re licensed,” Erben said.

“If you’re asking whether there’s any constitutional or statutory impediment, there’s not,” Erben added. “It’s up to the Democratic primary voters as to whether it impacts their views of Mr. Merritt.”

Merritt is licensed in Pennsylvania, where he went to law school at Temple University in Philadelphia and where he is a partner in a law firm. His law firm in Texas is a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania firm, he said. He was previously licensed in New Jersey, but that license has lapsed. Merritt has been admitted to practice in federal courts, where all of his civil rights practice is handled, he said.

He moved to Texas in 2015 with his wife at the time. The two divorced that summer, but Merritt continued to keep a residence in North Texas and started taking on clients in the state. He is originally from Los Angeles.

Merritt said he’s running for attorney general on a platform of reforming criminal justice, protecting the right to vote and defending a person’s right to an abortion.

At the AFL-CIO debate, Merritt said he has suspended his civil rights practice during the campaign but plans to pursue admission into the Texas bar without having to take the bar exam.

Merritt could do so by showing the Texas Board of Law Examiners that he has practiced law in a U.S. state or territory or in Washington, D.C., and be able to document that he has been “actively and substantially engaged in the lawful practice of law as their principal 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 applying for admission to the Texas bar by virtue of already being admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.

However, the Texas Board of Law Examiners said the board has not received such an application.

Merritt acknowledged he was waiting for “some requirements that are a little more tedious to fulfill” before he can complete the application. Those include obtaining his law school transcripts and supplying his fingerprints and a certification of good standing from the Pennsylvania bar.

Previously, Merritt has said that he opted against getting licensed in the state because of the history of state bars in the South targeting civil rights attorneys. State bars would deny them the opportunity to appear in federal court or arrest them under penalties criminalizing the unauthorized practice of law.

Because of that, Merritt said he’d “decided not to join the Texas bar so that I can continue to fight for Texans all throughout the state.”

Merritt’s lack of a license drew the attention of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee in 2018 after someone made a complaint that he was practicing in the state without a license. The committee is a volunteer investigative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

In a filing in federal court, Merritt’s attorney said the investigation was spurred by Merritt’s representation of a Fort Worth woman who had been wrestled to the ground by a police officer when she called to report an assault on her son.

In February 2018, Merritt and the committee entered into a final consent judgment that barred him from practicing or representing himself as an attorney in matters related to state law. Six months later, the committee sued Merritt for violating that agreement, alleging that he continued to represent clients on issues related to state courts. A judge in Collin County later ruled against the committee.

Merritt said in each instance he acted as an advocate for clients while he prepared to file federal lawsuits on their behalf. He also said the committee’s move was a politically motivated attempt to stop his civil rights work.

The investigation was not the only challenge his legal career faced that year.

In May 2018, Merritt represented Sherita Dixon-Cole of Grapevine, who claimed that a DPS trooper had pulled her over and sexually assaulted her.

In a statement at the time, Merritt claimed that the officer had offered to let her go in exchange for sexual favors and when she declined, the officer sexually assaulted her.

With the help of activist Shaun King, a friend of Merritt’s from Morehouse College who has a million followers on Twitter, the story gained national attention.

But three days later, the DPS released police camera video that disproved Dixon-Cole’s claims.

“The Department is appalled that anyone would make such a despicable, slanderous 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 troubling when innocent parties are falsely accused, and I am truly sorry for any trouble these claims 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 civil rights lawyers “often have to fight in the dark,” and getting attention for their cases, as well as the quick release of evidence, requires “making noise.” He said he dropped the case within 24 hours of the video’s release.

“I was regretful that anyone had been maligned in the process, but I was doing my job, which was to get access to evidence and investigate claims,” he said.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of 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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.