Charges against Jean family’s lawyer dismissed
Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt said Friday he is free to assist victims of police misconduct after a judge dismissed charges accusing him of practicing Texas law without a state license.
Merritt, who is from Los Angeles, faced 16 counts of criminal contempt for practicing state law without a Texas law license. A judge concluded her dismissal of all 16 charges, including 14 that were dismissed outright before rebuttal.
The Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee is considering appealing Thursday’s ruling by Judge Cynthia Wheless, according to committee member Leland de la Garza.
Merritt has represented the families of Botham Jean and Jordan Edwards, among other Texas victims of alleged police brutality. He said in a prepared statement that state authorities had wasted taxpayer resources over two years investigating each of Merritt’s Texas cases, and had thereby exposed the state’s justice system as a tool to “suppress the rights of the most vulnerable.”
De la Garza said the committee’s purpose was the opposite, and that it existed to protect the people by ensuring no one without the required expertise can offer legal services in Texas. Merritt is not licensed to practice state law in Texas, but he said he practiced federal law in all of his dealings with Texas clients, specifically relating to federal civil rights laws.
“It was an ironic honor to be investigated by the Texas State Bar,” Merritt said, citing civil rights icons who were targeted by legal authorities for their work. Merritt later clarified he meant the Texas Supreme Court, which oversees the UPLC.
The UPLC continues to believe Merritt violated the terms of a prior agreement to refrain from practicing state law in Texas, de la Garza said. He said that while the judge may believe Merritt’s involvement in state law practice was unintentional, the UPLC does not.
De la Garza emphasized that the UPLC could not target Merritt because its investigations are always complaintdriven, as was the case for Merritt.
The initial complaint of unlawful practice was filed by Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson. The 16 charges ultimately filed by the UPLC each sought six months of jail time. An indictment on any charge could have jeopardized Merritt’s ability to practice federal law in Texas in the future.
Merritt’s attorney Yodit Tewolde said they’re considering filing charges against the UPLC for frivolous claims and may pursue sanctions relating to the committee’s own violations of Texas’ legal rules, citing instances when she said the UPLC did not follow rules during Merritt’s trial.
The statement was challenged by de la Garza, who said the UPLC believes in the merit of its claims and that its members are highly ethical. He added that any accusations relating to the latter would be “vigorously defended against.”
Merritt is demanding a “public and full-throated” apology for the charges.
“Two years of taxpayer resources were wasted on this witch-hunt and more importantly pulled me away from serving families seeking justice in a system clearly designed to deny them that,” Merritt said.