Civil Rights Attorney Lee Merritt on the Texas primary race

by | Feb 17, 2022 | Politics, Texas Elections

Early voting for the Texas primaries has already begun, and many candidates are working overtime to make sure voters go out and vote. A specific race many Texas are tuned into is the Texas attorney general race against indicted incumbent Republican Ken Paxton.

The Signal spoke with Civil Rights Attorney and Democratic AG candidate Lee Merritt on the Texas primaries, addressing his lawsuit with the Texas State Bar, the criminal legal system, the legalization of marijuana, speaking with voters, and more. 

How has it been knocking on doors and connecting with voters in their homes? 

“Yeah, I was concerned that with the Omicron variant and numbers in some regions going up that we couldn’t knock on doors. That’s one part of the political process I am familiar with as an organizer. I know how important it is, and elections are won on the doors. So we’re social distancing, but I’m glad to be able to do that and work with some friends at the Texas Organizing Project, who have door knocking down to a science. It’s really important to engage the local voters. Folks who don’t normally come out in the primary election, particularly in off years. And the only real way to do that is to show up on their doorstep.” 

Two other democratic opponents have similar focuses on voting rights, healthcare, protecting the grid, etc. Why do you stand out in the crowd?

We’ve had a few chances to talk about our platforms amongst each other, and I actually have found that although we care about some of the things that are central to Texas like the power grid, voting rights, and healthcare, etc., it turns out we are quite different. The easy aspect is I’ve been watching the Republican candidates, and they’ve been bragging about suing the federal government. My practice and my career have been about doing the opposite. It’s about suing Republicans to enforce the full constitutional citizen rights for Texans. And I think that sets me apart from Mr. Jowarski, who has been a mediator and a mayor. Ms. Garza has done great work at the border in terms of immigrant rights and reproductive care. I don’t think any of them has been as invested in the individual rights of Texans as my practice has reflected. I think my career being an advocate statewide and nationally for Texans’ individual rights sets me apart.”

Republicans across the nation have been using populist language like they are pro-workers but then don’t enact change policy-wise. Do you feel like voters are starting to notice? 

“I know that they’ve lost union support, and you don’t see a lot of unions lining up behind Republican candidates because they see the direct harm. I certainly believe that interest groups are wising up, but Texans are in general. The reason why you see such extreme measures to suppress the vote in Texas is that the population no longer reflects Republican values. Texas is more diverse, more working-class, more progressive than it was ten years ago, and they are fighting to hold on to power.”

Speaking about the Ahmaud Arbery case, the Department Of Justice, and the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act being gutted in D.C., do you think America and Texas policy-wise are ready to enact criminal justice reform? 

“I think that we framed it a little differently. I think Republicans have had a lot better rhetoric than the progressive community. Obviously, defunding the police is not the mantra when gun violence is up, and people are, in fact, concerned about their safety. And when law enforcement officers and first responders are in fact, working class Texans. The law enforcement community is actually saying the right thing, and they’re not saying what Republicans are saying. Republicans are saying ‘constitutional carry’ law enforcement begged them not to do that, and they did it anyway. They said we should have the minimum requirements for gun ownership before you allow people in this atmosphere to carry around a gun without any licensing requirement.” 

Can you speak a little about Paxton’s most recent lawsuit against the federal government for potentially raising the minimum wage? 

“He’s suing the federal government so that they can not raise the minimum wage, and it doesn’t make any sense why he would do that. Other Republicans are in the process of bragging about suing the feds. And he’s trying to protect corporations and businesses. The idea that they have to pay federal contractors more or at least a living wage is offensive to him and the corporate elite. Texas enjoys the ninth-largest economy in the world. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are flocking to Texas to enjoy the outstanding work and labor force that we have here and the breaks that they receive from our government. And we will be chartering a different path once I’m AG.”

Over the years, Texas current AG Paxton has sued the federal government many times over voting rights, reproductive care, vaccine mandates, and more. Since this interview with Merritt, Paxton has filed another suit against the Department of Justice to require masks in airports and airplanes. 

The Signal got a tip about a lawsuit you had in Collin County with the Texas Bar Association, and right now, when I look you up, I can’t find your name on the website. Can you clarify that for me? 

“The simple part is I’m running to be AG for the state of Texas. I represent dozens of families. I am involved in organizing and working with county judges in the state. I do so as a pragmatist in a lot of ways. There have been seven other attorney generals who are not a part of the Texas state bar. I’m a member of the federal bar. The Texas bar is often hostile to federal law, and so when I brought my practice here to Texas and began enforcing the federal law against municipalities, I received some pushback. My office was sued, and we took that case to court about whether or not I should be allowed to enforce federal law here in Texas. And this is an issue that has already been well settled. So I won that case. A Republican tactic is to challenge out-of-state attorneys and threaten them with criminal incarceration. I was facing eight years in prison for practicing federal law in Texas. And we won the case; in fact the judge dismissed the charges before we could even offer a defense. For me, it’s a badge of courage. When I decided to run for Texas AG, and I resigned my practice, I started the process of reciprocity. So by March, I will be a member of the Texas state bar.”

For context, Merritt referenced the 1956 case of Texas v. the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where the state sued Civil Rights Attorney Thurgood Marshall for creating an NAACP division in Smith County. 

Of course, the establishment of the office in East Texas was to ensure Black people in the area and around the state had access to equal rights under the law. More specifically, in education, since public schools were starting to integrate white and Black students after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. 

Southern states like Texas were more resistant to change, so leaders in the civil rights movement were doing as much as possible to fix the system. Nevertheless, the strive for equality was met with criticism from Texas elected officials. In the end, Marshall and the state decided on an agreement that restricted the association to only engage in activities “deemed educational or charitable.” 

In addition to civil rights, Merritt said he plans to highlight the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana on an equitable scale. This means expunging the records of minorities and distributing economic opportunities for communities adversely affected by the War on Drugs. 

Additionally, Merritt said addressing Abbott’s disastrous Operation Lone Star, prioritizing mental health in the state, and climate justice is all a priority in the campaign. 

“This is what I do,” Merritt said. “I fight for people’s rights.” 

The primary election day for this race is March 1, 2022.

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Kennedy is a recent graduate of the University of St.Thomas in Houston where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Celt Independent. Kennedy brings her experience of writing about social justice issues to the Texas Signal where she serves as our Political Reporter. She does everything from covering crime beats, Texas politics, and community activism. Kennedy is a passionate reporter, avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and loves to travel.

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