By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The South Belt-Ellington Leader was knocked on its heels a few years ago after it took up the fight against plans to burn contaminants at the Brio hazardous waste site off Dixie Farm Road. The community newspaper's crusade cost it advertisers, causing it to shrink from 28 pages down to 12 at one point. Co-publishers Marie Flickinger and Bobby Griffin sometimes found they couldn't afford to pay themselves at the end of the month.
So the slander and libel lawsuit that Christian conservative activist Larry Maxwell filed against Flickinger, Griffin and their paper in early 1994 was, naturally, a cause of concern as it lingered in state district court. And the Leader also took it seriously this summer when Maxwell followed up on his then-pending lawsuit by filing a $49 million commercial lien against the paper, publishers Flickinger and Griffin, and one of its reporters -- even though they had no legally binding financial obligation to Maxwell.
Without explanation, Maxwell recently dropped both his lawsuit and lien against the Leader, but not before Flickinger and Griffin got a firsthand taste of what they and others in southeast Harris County already knew: if you somehow get crosswise with Larry Maxwell, onetime football coach at Deer Park Junior High, there's a good chance you'll find yourself in court. And there's a good chance it will wind up costing you some money. Maxwell has filed at least seven lawsuits in Harris County in the last three years, leaving behind a trail of costly litigation, lots of indignant rhetoric and, mostly, a bunch of bemused and angry defendants.
His latest suit grew out of the 1993 elections for the Pasadena school board, in which Maxwell was running on a slate that promised to appoint a "Christian superintendent" and restore a "foundation of Christian ethics" to the schools.
"He scared the crap out of everyone in Pasadena when he got in the race," recalls a former Pasadena journalist who covered the elections. "The school board was fairly conservative, but Maxwell was just a little too nutty for them. There was a concern that if he was elected, there would be chaos."
He didn't scare the crap out of everyone, of course. The South Belt-Ellington Leader was concerned enough to issue editorial endorsements in the school board races, something it had done only a handful of times in its 17-year publishing history. In backing the opponents of Maxwell and the two other candidates on his slate, the Leader described Maxwell as supporting the firing of "suspected homosexual and lesbian teachers" and "teaching evolution as a theory and creationism as a fact" and argued that such policies could not legally be carried out by the school board.
"[Pasadena] cannot afford attorney fees to defend our district from the lawsuits which will result if [Maxwell's] slate is successful," the Leader editorialized.
Maxwell -- who subsequently lost to incumbent Carmen Orozco by 2,345 votes out of 6,421 cast, a tripling of turnout over the previous election -- claimed in his lawsuit that the Leader editorial completely distorted the language of his campaign brochure, which declared that "homosexuals will not teach the schoolchildren of Pasadena" and that "the biology curriculum will be restructured to include 'arguments for the flaws in the theory of evolution,' as mandated by state law."
"As a result of the libelous news articles published by the defendants," Maxwell's petition claimed, "plaintiff's reputation was seriously injured and plaintiff's bid for school board trustee was effectively thwarted. Plaintiff suffered emotional distress and mental anguish and was forced continually to defend himself to persons who had previously supported his position."
The lawsuit had yet to go to court in mid-July when Maxwell filed his lien, claiming the right to all the property of the "debtors" except their "wedding rings, keepsakes, family photos [and] diaries ...." Maxwell calculated that he was due $49 million for "criminal and civil breach of common law" by the Leader and claimed that "any judge" who tampered with the document would be "in violation of the Supreme Law of the Land, is acting in the nature of a foreign enemy, and is justifiably subject to the penalties of treason; God's speed."
The filing of such legally invalid encumbrances is a tactic that has been employed elsewhere in the country by right-wing extremists to harass public officials and other perceived adversaries, but Maxwell's apparently was the first such action taken locally. (A lien is a claim against some property which must be paid before it can be transferred to another party. Liens are generally filed when a judgment has been passed down or when a clear claim on property can be established.)
"I can't just walk in and put a lien on your property," says Elena Marks, the legal adviser for Planned Parenthood of Houston, which has been on the receiving end of some of Maxwell's litigation. "Basically what it does is it messes with someone."
Lawyer Cactus Jack Cagle, a Christian conservative who's represented Maxwell in some of his suits, claims that the intent of Maxwell's litigation is not to harass but to protect his rights and those of other liked-minded Christians.
"He tends to find himself involved in issues involving basic constitutional rights," says Cagle. "He tends to be more interested in the constitutional rights of parents and speech as it relates to churches and nonprofits."