In a hopelessly disheveled office that he likens to a frat house, Judge Larry Meyers of Fort Worth, the only statewide Democrat in red-state Texas, tacitly acknowledges that he’s an endangered species.
He’s facing re-election to his last six-year term on the state’s highest criminal appeals court, mindful that Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994 and that Republicans still seethe with resentment over his party switch just three years ago.
But, at the same time, asserts the longest-serving judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, don’t count him out just yet.
“I might have a shot at it,” he declares in assessing his chances in the Nov. 8 election. “I’m praying hard every day.” And, in an impromptu touch of trade-mark humor, he adds: “I’m open for former felons if they want to vote for me.”
Meyers also hints that he may entertain a run at a future state or legislative office if things don’t go well in his re-election race, although he's not ready to disclose what that might be.
It’s already been a long ride, and for more than a quarter-century, he’s not only watched the political world change around him, he’s also changed within it. Along the way, Meyers has left a broad imprint on Texas jurisprudence, gaining a reputation as somewhat of a judicial and political maverick who’s authored hundreds of opinions and sometimes-blistering dissents.
In 1992, back when Democrats dominated the political landscape, he was the first Republican to win election to the nine-member court, the state’s last resort for criminal appeals, after serving four years on a Fort Worth-based intermediate appeals court.
As Republicans steadily painted Texas in a sea of red, Meyers, who describes himself as a “progressive” moderate, rebelled against the state’s rightward tilt and defected to the Democratic Party in 2013, an action that many said automatically signed his political death warrant. The party switch gave Democrats what they had long been seeking through elections — a statewide office.
In just over two weeks, Meyers will find out if predictions of his imminent demise are on the mark. He faces Houston District Judge Mary Lou Keel, who is touting 31 years of criminal legal experience and an impressive list of endorsements, including more than a half-dozen from state and local law enforcement organizations.
Meyers, by contrast, eschews the speaking circuit, hasn’t sought endorsements, doesn’t have a campaign Website or political consultant and is relying primarily on newspaper interviews and editorial board meetings to elevate his profile. Nevertheless, Meyers said he unquestionably wants to remain on the court, adding “I’d love to do another six years.”
In statements earlier this year, Meyers seemed somewhat resolved to likely defeat. But his tone has sounded more hopeful with recent polls suggesting that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump might be threatened in GOP-dominated Texas, boosting the outlook for down-ballot Democrats like Meyers.
“If the Democratic waters rise and the Democratic boat rises,” says Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, “then Judge Meyers will be on that boat, and he will win.”
Nevertheless, his opponent and most other Republicans predict that Meyers’ boat will be dry-docked after the votes come in. “He did himself some serious damage when he switched parties,” said Keel, 55, who served as an assistant district attorney in Houston before becoming a felony trial court judge in 1995. “I don’t see him as a formidable candidate because of the political realities in Texas today.”
Keel, who comes from a well-known Austin political family, won the Republican nomination in a May run-off after topping the field in a hard-fought three-way primary. She had $9,140 in cash-on-hand at the end of September, compared to $441 for Meyers, according to the latest financial disclosure records at the Texas Ethics Commission.
At stake is a $168,000-a-year job with a workload covering the spectrum of criminal behavior, from capital murder and child abuse to felony thefts, burglaries and official corruption. The court cf criminal appeals received nearly 4,460 appeals in the 2016 fiscal year and typically disposes of more matters each year than any other appellate court in the country, according to its Website,
Meyers said he was heartened by a Texas Bar poll early this year that showed he was 626 votes ahead of Keel and a field of other Republicans then entangled in a primary race. He said the survey demonstrated strong support among attorneys, although the cumulative vote total for six challengers topped his 1,772 votes. Keel had a two-to-one lead in a Houston Bar poll.
Whether his future on the court extends to another six years — he said it would definitely be his last — or ends at the close of his current term in January, Meyers says he looks back with pride at the record he has compiled through nearly 24 years on the state’s top criminal appeals bench.
As of mid-October, according to court statistics, the Place 2 judge had sided with the high-court majority in 1,208 cases, and had written 431 of those of opinions.
One the most far-reaching majority opinions authored by Meyers was the 1996 “Elizondo” case which has enabled wrongly convicted defendants to present proof of their innocence — such as recanted testimony or DNA evidence — long after their trials.
The so-called “actual innocence” ruling, which Meyers proudly calls the “mainstay” of his career, paved the way for overturning errant convictions such as that of Texan Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of killing of his wife. Morton spent nearly 25 years in prison before being released in 2011 after DNA evidence implicated another man.
Meyers has also penned 239 dissents throughout his high-court career, including some that undiplomatically rapped his colleagues. Two of his more “frisky” dissents — as he puts it — came in high-profile cases in which the majority ruled in favor of former Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The court dropped abuse of power charges against Perry in early 2016 and overturned a money-laundering conviction against DeLay in 2014.
“The reality here is that the majority is eager to keep Appellant from… going to prison, and, as a result, it has done one better than what the appellant’s attorney even asked for,” Meyers said in his DeLay dissent. In the Perry case, Meyers wrote that the “majority opinion has repealed more statutes and made more new law than Governor Perry did in the last session of the Legislature…”
He also referred to the two dissents in a recent case involving another defendant in September. “In my Perry dissent,” he wrote in the more recent dissent, “ I indicated that the tragedy in that case was not just in granting relief to Perry, but in preventing legitimate appeals by other defendants who do not share his political power or charm.”
‘There to do justice’
Even before switching parties, Meyers caused a stir when he threatened a Republican Primary challenge against Presiding Judge Sharon Keller in 2011 before ultimately backing off. In his first political test after becoming a Democrat, Meyers made an ill-fated run in 2014 for the Texas Supreme Court — the state’s other top appeals court that deals primarily in civil cases — but drew 36 percent against winner Jeff Brown’s 60 percent.
Meyers, who remained on the criminal court after making his mid-term Supreme Court bid, acknowledges that his colleagues “weren’t very happy” with his dissents in the Perry and Delay cases as well as his stands in other divisive cases. “We’re not there to really get along,” he said. “We’re there to do justice.”
Meyers said he remains friendly with Keller despite his threatened political challenge five years ago. The presiding judge said she preferred not to comment for this article, explaining that she has a practice of not talking about fellow colleagues to the press.
“Some of them I get along with fine,” Meyers said in describing his overall relations with fellow colleagues. “Some of them, not quite as well as I used to.”
Over the years, Meyers’ judicial style and decisions on widely varying cases have generated both impassioned criticism and strong praise.
The Republican head of a 29-year-old political action committee involved in judicial races says he has long been one of Meyers’ detractors, contending that the long-time jurist overwhelmingly sides with the defense and against the state. “Meyers is out out there on the far-end of the court,” said retired surgeon John Coppedge of Longview, who heads the Texas Bipartisan Justice Committee.
Meyers disputes the assessment, saying he weighs each decision on the merits while citing his dissents in the Perry and DeLay case as examples of cases in which he sided with the state. Two attorneys who have known Meyers for years - Jack Strickland of Fort Worth and Brian Wice of Houston - both use the use the term “unpredictable” to describe the long-time judge, saying he can’t be pigeon-holed as a sure vote for either side.
“Larry tries to do the right thing and he appears to be absolutely unconcerned with the fall-out,” said Strickland, a long-time defense attorney and former prosecutor in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “He’ll write an opinion the prosecutors just go apoplectic over, and the next week he’ll issue an opinion over his signature that that defense people just about have a stroke over.”
Wice says Meyers injects “common-sense” into his legal decisions and displays “feistiness and independence” in his dealings with other members of the court. Whenever he leaves the bench, said Wice, “he’s going to be missed.”
Many of those who know him best — attorneys, court colleagues, staff members and friends back him home in Fort Worth — say he is unfailingly gregarious, displaying an approachable light-hearted nature reflected in his habit of stepping down from the bench to mingle with attorneys and spectators before and after court sessions.
Wice recalls how he quickly likened Meyers to “the cool mom in the neighborhood” after visiting the jurist’s office for the first time years ago and discovering that it included a basketball hoop, an endless supply of orange soda and a cheery informality that attracted drop-ins from other offices. “Everybody seemed to congregate there,” says Wice, who has remained friends with the judge.
If anything, Meyers’ second-floor office, one story above the court chambers, has become even more casual and eclectic in the years since Meyers first joined the court. The six-foot-tall basketball hoop is still there, though Meyers says he rarely uses it for fear of breaking a lamp. Replica historic flags hang in front of law book shelves, and reams of discarded papers are strewn in a corner. Duck decoys and old tennis racquets add to the unconventional decor.
“It’s never dull,” says research attorney Anna Price, who has been with Meyers for 14 years and describes him as a “great” boss.
A native of Kanas City, Mo., Meyers graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and received his legal education at the University of Kansas and the University of Virginia and later moved to Fort Worth, where he practiced civil, criminal and appellate law from 1975 to 1988.
He served on the Fort Worth-based Second Appeals Court for four years beginning in 1989, upending a Democratic incumbent in 1992 to take his place on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in January of 1993.
Although Republican appointee David Berchelmann of San Antonio was briefly on the court in 1989-90, Meyer was the first elected Republican and served as the lone member of his party until two other members joined two years later. By the early 21st Century, the court was solidly Republican.
Fort Worth Republican activist Steve Hollern, who was Tarrant County Republican Chairman when Meyers began his judicial ascent on the second appeals court, recalled the thunderstruck reaction after Meyers defected to Democrats in 2013.
“When he changed parties, I said I hope he understands that he just signed his retirement papers,” said Hollern. “There were a lot of people who were unhappy, and that included me.”
In a recent hour-plus interview in his office, Meyers discussed the challenges of being the only Democrat on a Republican bench, his approach to the law, his relationship with colleagues, his party switch and his political battle with Keel. He also addressed controversies outside the courtroom, including his brush with the law over a speeding ticket and a flap that erupted in Fort Worth after he and other neighbors put up fake parking signs to discourage student parking from TCU.
If he had to do over again, he said, he would have paid the speeding ticket rather than press for an appeal and drag out a delay that prompted a municipal judge to issue a warrant for his arrest. He defended his actions in the parking sign dispute, saying he and neighbors have been working with the city to try to alleviate parking and congestion problems that he said were endangering residents.
Meyers says he was driven out of the Republican party by the growth of the Tea Party and staunchly conservative legislation such as the 2011 voter ID law. In an action unusual for a judge, Meyers filed suit against the law, which he said is now on hold pending the outcome of federal litigation.
“I basically considered myself a moderate …but I never felt like I was to the right of everything,” he said in recalling his days as a Republican,. He said he considers himself a progressive, adding, “If you’re not a progressive, you’re a regressive.”
Meyers says he will likely return to Fort Worth full-time whenever he leaves the court. He says he doesn’t know what awaits after the bench but says there are several options. “I may run for something else. I could sit as a visiting judge. I could write my memoirs. I’ve seen a lot.”