S. Lee Merritt is a Philadelphia lawyer.
Some of the time.
Although his office is at 1500 Walnut St., much of his work has him crisscrossing the country, taking on one high-profile police-brutality or racial-violence case after another.
Merritt, a 2012 graduate of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, calls himself the “people’s lawyer,” as much a social-justice activist as an attorney. His are the cases that ignite social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Among his most recent causes:
DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old black man whose August beating by several white men was captured on video at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.; the family of Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old black high school honors student killed in April when a white police officer outside Dallas shot a rifle into a car full of teens leaving a party; and Marlin Gipson, 21, a black college student who was attacked by a K-9 dog in Houston after he was stopped by a white officer for distributing business cards for his lawn-mowing service.
— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) October 25, 2017
And Merritt, 34, with only five years as an attorney, is poised for more.
On Thursday, he will be honored at a New York gala as among the online magazine the Root’s 100 Most Influential African Americans ages 25 to 45.
“Merritt is emerging as a new leader in the fight for racial justice, standing on the front lines of making sure people know that black lives matter,” wrote the Root when it announced the list in September.
The fact is, he’s ranked No. 8 on a list that includes Get Out director Jordan Peele (No. 1) and Selma director Ava DuVernay (No. 4). Beyoncé is No. 11.
Already, some of Merritt’s friends have called him this generation’s Thurgood Marshall. But Merritt, humbled, concedes he has a lot more to learn.
“When I think of Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Thurgood Marshall — he was just an amazing attorney — I’m not willing to make that comparison,” he said.
Sara Jacobson, who runs Temple Law’s trial advocacy program, said she knew “Stacy” Merritt (that’s where the “S” comes in) was talented when he first competed on the school’s trial team.
“He was one of our superstars,” said Jacobson, who described a good trial attorney as “someone who can speak from the heart with passion, who can bring their intellect to the case, who shares a part of himself in the courtroom.”
Merritt “was always really good about being himself in the courtroom. He was comfortable in his own skin and a very persuasive speaker.”
But Merritt wasn’t always working in a field in which he was passionate. After Temple, he did two years at a firm that specialized in handling car accident cases.
“It just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. He still handles some of those kinds of cases, especially in Philadelphia, “because they pay the bills.”
But Merritt spends most of his time where his children and ex-wife live — in Texas. Last week, the Dallas NAACP gave Merritt its President’s Award for Legal Activism.
“He’s not bashful in his plight to expose the systemic racism we are faced with daily,” said K.C. Fox of the Dallas NAACP. “He’s very aggressive, and although he understands politics, he doesn’t play politics.”
Fox explained that Merritt’s “outsider” status — with his primary office in Philadelphia — helps him with cases other attorneys might avoid because they don’t want to step on the toes of prosecutor friends.
But what she views as an advantage has brought criticism from one Texas district attorney who questioned why he comes from Philadelphia for cases.
Although he has passed the state bars in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, he’s also licensed in parts of Texas to take on federal cases where constitutional law is violated. Merritt said it’s similar to what lawyers did during the 1950s and 1960s when they went South to defend civil rights cases, he said.
Merritt’s passion for social justice was molded at Morehouse College in Atlanta, which he says instilled in him a commitment to help others.
Morehouse — the alma mater of leaders past and current, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Merritt’s friend Randall Woodfin, the mayor-elect of Birmingham, Ala. —- “did not focus only on educating the mind, but training the spirit of men to develop into community leaders,” Merritt said.
Immediately after college, Merritt worked for Teach for America for two years in Camden, then returned to Atlanta to coach basketball and teach for another two years.
There, Merritt began considering law school.
If Morehouse shaped Merritt as a man, and his time in Camden and Temple brought him closer to pursuing social justice, he says his dream to be a lawyer started in his hometown: Los Angeles, in particular its South Central neighborhood.
Merritt was 8 when the videotaped beating of Rodney King flashed across television screens in 1991. A year later, riots erupted after four white police officers were acquitted. About the same time, an appeals court upheld a sentence of probation and a fine for a store owner convicted of killing 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, whom she accused of shoplifting, by shooting her in the head.
“So when the courts determined the cops involved in the beating of Rodney King had committed no crime and that the woman who murdered Latasha Harlins would never see the inside of a cell, I was overwhelmed with the sting of injustice,” Merritt wrote for the speech he is scheduled to give at Thursday’s gala.
His early heroes were lawyers: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who fought apartheid and in 1990 had been released from prison after 27 years, and Johnnie Cochran. (Long before Cochran became synonymous with the O.J. Simpson trial, he pursued police-brutality and wrongful-imprisonment cases.)
“I had Johnnie Cochran’s picture on my wall when other people had posters of Tupac,” Merritt said in one YouTube interview.
These days, he’s also encouraging civilians to file complaints about police if they suspect even a hint of misconduct. In the case of the officer arrested in Edwards’ death, two weeks earlier the man pulled a gun on a motorist who accidentally rear-ended him while off duty, Merritt said. Had the woman filed a complaint, the officer might have been put on desk duty, Merritt said.
Temple Law School faculty plan to bring him back to campus to meet with current students, Jacobson said.
“I know I’m very proud of him, and I think our students will be very impressed by his work.”