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."
Maxwell pursues that interest through the Bay Area Family Association, an entity that has been affiliated with the Reverend Donald Wildmon's Tupelo-based American Family Association and which Maxwell runs out of his Pasadena home. According to a 1992 letterhead, the Bay Area Family Association is "a 501(c)(3) nonprofit pro-family educational organization." What Maxwell does with his time, according to literature for his Pasadena school board campaign, is "monitor the educational process as a matter of my daily duty to those who support our ministry. I am in a unique position to be able to 'listen' to the concerns of the community. Each day I listen to the concerns of parents and act on those concerns." The Press was unable to determine how the Bay Area Family Association is funded, although at one point it brought in $2,500 a month in donations, according to a Maxwell newsletter found in the court file for one of his lawsuits.
The son of a Baptist minister and possessor of a degree in physical education from Texas A&M, Maxwell was a teacher and coach in the small Texas towns of Evant and Ranger before his wife accepted a job with the Deer Park Independent School District in 1980. Maxwell taught and coached briefly at Sam Rayburn High in Pasadena and at Deer Park Junior High before he, according to his lawsuit against the Leader, "began full-time pursuits in private business," primarily in real estate. He's been a full-time "monitor of the educational process" since 1991.
Maxwell was the treasurer for the 1992 campaign of John Devine, the anti-abortion activist who mounted a write-in campaign to unseat state District Judge Eileen O'Neill, whose rulings against anti-abortion activists during the Republican National Convention that year galvanized Christian conservatives. Maxwell was quoted at the time as saying the "Spirit of God" had moved Devine to challenge O'Neill, and Devine credited the Bay Area Family Association with inspiring him to undertake his write-in effort. Devine lost, but two years later, running as the Republican nominee on a platform that downplayed his religious rhetoric and stressed his opposition to frivolous lawsuits, he unseated O'Neill.
The Press had difficulty finding people willing to talk on the record about Maxwell, and there's apparently a good reason for that.
"There are a lot of people who know him, but because of his reputation, many do not want to say anything for fear of being on the other end of a lawsuit," explains Kirk Lewis, a spokesman for the Pasadena Independent School District, which has been on the other end of two of Maxwell's court actions.
To hear attorney Cagle tell it, though, Larry Maxwell is something like the last honorable man in an age of complacency.
"The enemies he has made he has made because he refused to back down when he is right," says Cagle, who himself is planning to run for a state court bench next year. "And when he is right, he is willing to go to the full extent of the judicial process to prove it. He refuses to be browbeaten. On nearly every issue, he has been entrenched on traditional constitutional ground."
Of course, the courts haven't always seen it that way, and Maxwell's effort to exert his own rights sometimes means contesting the rights of others, particularly their First Amendment rights of free speech.
Take, for example, the suit Maxwell filed shortly after one of the big anti-abortion protests at Planned Parenthood of Houston's downtown clinic that were held in connection with the 1992 Republican National Convention.
The protest found abortion-rights advocates on the clinic side of the street, anti-abortion protesters on the other, and a heavy police presence between them. Maxwell, though, managed to progress about 20 feet down the Planned Parenthood side before he was confronted by the clinic defenders, who blocked him from going any farther. He soon was approached by the police. When he refused to leave, he was arrested, with the officer assuming that Maxwell was with the anti-abortion contingent because he was causing a fuss on the pro-choice side of the street. Maxwell, however, claimed to be an unaware passerby who simply wanted to walk down the Planned Parenthood side of the street.
It was a tough day for Maxwell, who, according to the original petition in the lawsuit he filed, was forced to endure handcuffs for two and a half hours, wait for transport for an hour and sit "confined in the oppressive heat of an un-air-conditioned and unventilated paddy wagon for approximately 30 minutes."
"Upon arrival," his petition went on, Maxwell was "further humiliated and anguished by having to remain in handcuffs and stand outside in the August heat for another 30 minutes waiting to be booked as a common criminal."
Shortly thereafter, Maxwell went to state court seeking injunctions against Planned Parenthood, the Houston Police Department, Chief Sam Nuchia, arresting HPD officer Joseph Henry, clinic defenders on the sidewalks and even two reporters from KHOU/Channel 11, who had videotaped the episode outside the clinic and aired it on the news that night. After acting as his own lawyer for a while, Maxwell enlisted Cagle in his lawsuit, which listed 22 grievances ranging from false imprisonment to malicious prosecution to violation of free speech and asked that the defendants be prevented from conspiring to deny him various and assorted rights.
The suit was moved to federal court; eventually Planned Parenthood and the TV station were dismissed as defendants. While the suit continued, though, Maxwell filed a second suit in October 1993, almost identical to the first and renaming Planned Parenthood and its officers as defendants. Both suits were consolidated into one, and together both were dismissed. But Maxwell filed for a third time in August 1994, just before the statute of limitations ran out.
"Each time he would file, he would change the wording of the pleading, but it arose out of the same event," says Planned Parenthood legal adviser Marks. "From a lawyer's point of view, it was totally absurd." The third suit was dismissed in just two months. Maxwell, however, was able to obtain a ruling from a federal judge that the Houston Police Department could no longer arrest him unless it had probable cause.
He scored a larger success in a suit that he, five parents and seven Pasadena students brought in April 1992 challenging the constitutionality and confidentiality of the Norm-referenced Assessment Program for Texas (NAPT), the mandatory test then being used to gauge the learning skills of students from elementary through high school. So that scores wouldn't be compromised, state law at the time prohibited the public from viewing or distributing copies of the tests.
Maxwell and his fellow plaintiffs expressed concern about several questions that they interpreted as having a religious or political slant, claiming that answers to the questions could be used by the state in assembling psychological profiles of students and demanding the right to review further tests before they were administered. Among the defendants were the Pasadena school district, the Texas Education Agency, the Psychological Corporation, which scored the test, and its owner, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich.
The questions to which Maxwell and the others objected were written down from memory by several students. One sample question -- at least as interpreted by one or more of the students -- asked which religion was least important in the world, with the test-takers having to choose between Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.
However, state District Judge Sharolyn Wood, in denying the plaintiffs' request that the schools be enjoined from further administering of the tests, found "that when the complete question is read, the question about the 'least' important religion is, in fact, a historical question about the city of Jerusalem and the religious opinions are, in fact, not questions about the students' personal opinions on religion, but rather required the students to answer questions interpreting graphs and charts."
Maxwell, in a press release issued at the time by his Bay Area Family Association, claimed Wood didn't review questions from the actual test booklets used in Pasadena but from booklets given to her by the TEA in Austin.
A few months after Wood's ruling, Riverside Publishing, which actually wrote the test, won a preliminary injunction preventing Maxwell from copying and distributing the tests. Shortly thereafter, Riverside filed a copyright infringement suit against Maxwell, claiming he was not abiding by the injunction. In March 1993, Maxwell offered to settle with Riverside if it paid him $5 million, and he vowed to use his "access" to radio and TV stations to possibly bring about the publisher's "the total economic downfall" if it didn't.
"Pandora's box will be opened, and Riverside's main focus may become litigation, not publication," Maxwell said in a letter to Riverside's attorneys.
Riverside didn't accept the offer, but eventually both sides reached an undisclosed settlement that, says Cagle, "left everyone a little happy and a little sad." Meanwhile, the suit over the tests continued against TEA, and a trial court eventually ruled that, although the NAPT exams had been discontinued, the still-in-effect TAAS exams, which had similar security precautions, had to be available for public viewing within 30 days of being administered and graded. The decision currently is being appealed by the TEA.
Before it was dismissed as a defendant from the assessment tests lawsuit, the Pasadena school district had to cough up $20,580 in legal fees. Another suit that Maxwell filed in April 1994 cost it $25,000 more for legal work.
Maxwell brought that action against Vicki Thomas, then the principal of George Thompson Intermediate School, for barring him from videotaping a cheerleading clinic. He was there on behalf of a girl who, despite being an honor student and involved in band and gymnastics, had been turned away from a cheerleading tryout because the teachers who picked the field determined that she "lacked leadership qualities." The suit was dismissed about a year later.
Maxwell's penchant for videotaping had also figured in a suit he filed in 1993 against the Deer Park school district and others. That action grew out of a November 1991 gathering of Deer Park parents to discuss their concerns about a new school curriculum called Positive Action, which sought to integrate school curriculums around common themes of emotional, physical and mental well-being. The program was aimed at boosting students' self-esteem and dissuading them from drinking and using drugs. But some parents -- and Maxwell, who did not have any children enrolled in the curriculum -- claimed to see "New Age" propaganda in the program. When its author, Carol Allred, was invited from Idaho to speak to parents in Deer Park, Maxwell had planned to videotape the meeting. But Allred didn't want the meeting taped.
"We felt like she was our guest, and we complied with her request," recalls Deer Park superintendent David Hicks. "[Maxwell] considered it to be an open meeting in the same way as a school board meeting, which can be videotaped." Maxwell reportedly stormed out of the meeting when he was prevented from taping it, then stormed back in court with a $1.2 million suit against the school district, Allred and others.
The suit was only the latest shot in a series of meetings and angry letters being fired from all fronts over Positive Action. One especially revealing exchange occurred when Sherri Vaughn, the executive secretary for the Deer Park school district, wrote to the Deer Park Broadcaster in November 1991, arguing in favor of the program and observing that "the recent attack on this program and the sensationalism surrounding this controversy frighteningly resembles the Salem witch hunts and McCarthyism." Half a year later, Maxwell wrote to Vaughn: "With 'Christians' like you, Sherri, Satan can send fewer demons to Deer Park to do his dirty work .... I rebuke you and all you have done to stop me and BAFA .... You will be exposed ...."
The suit languished until early this year, when the Deer Park district settled with Maxwell. "Our school board was very reluctant to settle this," Hicks says, "because we felt we were in our legal rights in this situation, and ultimately we would prevail." But the settlement was so reasonable, Hicks adds, "that if we didn't take it, our insurance company would no longer be able to cover us." Deer Park ISD's insurance carrier paid $15,000 to settle with Maxwell and another $27,000 for the district's legal expenses.
Maxwell offered to drop his suit against the Leader for a settlement of a few thousand dollars in July, but Flickinger said no.
"It's a matter of principle," she said. "If I had the money I wouldn't want to settle. The next thing we knew, we got [the lien] in the mail."
Planned Parenthood and the Leader were provided pro bono legal representation, that is, for free. "Had we not friends like that, we'd have been in trouble," Flickinger says. "We'd have had to settle." Planned Parenthood may have been spared monetary expense as well, but the freebies are precious: "There are only so many times you can ask lawyers to work for free," says Elena Marks. The suits "cost us time and resources in litigation."
"Most nonprofits don't have the resources to fight any kind of protracted legal battle," observes Cecile Richards, executive director of the Texas Freedom Alliance, which monitors the activities of the far right and its many national legal foundations gaining influence across the country. "Those folks operating at lower ends of financial security won't do anything if they think the far right will take them on. It's very frightening to see in school districts."
Maxwell, on the other hand, generally serves as his own counsel, and when he does have representation, he calls upon a loyal army of volunteers to help foot the bill. Cagle describes him as one of the best pro se litigants he's seen. He may have to be.
"My gut is no lawyer would come within 1,000 feet of this guy," says Elena Marks.
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By that, Marks means that lawyers can get themselves in trouble by filing frivolous lawsuits. One of the new "tort reform" laws effective this month makes it easier to quickly establish whether a case is frivolous and to impose sanctions on parties bringing such pleadings to court.
Larry Maxwell didn't respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, which was not surprising, given that his relations with the media appear to be about as cordial as his relations with local school boards.
In addition to his litigation against the Leader, Maxwell was once asked to leave the Pasadena Citizen's newsroom after arguing with the editor over the paper's refusal to publish a retraction Maxwell had prepared for an article about him. Then there was the time Maxwell passed around a cut-and-pasted version of a local reporter's story about him -- perhaps untwisting whatever he perceived to be twisted there? -- and later was confronted by the reporter. She forgave him for what he had done. He pointed a finger at her and exclaimed, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"
After getting no response to the several calls we had placed to Maxwell and the two visits we made to his home, we faxed him a polite inquiry about what documentation the Bay Area Family Association, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, might be required to file with the IRS and make available for public inspection. That brought the Press its first and only direct contact with Larry Maxwell, who phoned to say that his organization was not required to file the documentation we were inquiring about. And then, Larry Maxwell ended that one and only contact by assuring us, in a gruff and most unfriendly voice, "If you call my office again, we will consider it an act of harassment, and you'll be hearing from me again.