All law schools train aspiring trial lawyers and judges to gather evidence, evaluate witnesses, and test claims and theories. We also learn not to interfere in criminal investigations. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott seems to have forgotten his legal training—and his ethics given his recent ham-handed response to the horrific school shooting in Uvalde. Instead, his words and actions highlighted what appears to be a serious mental decline.
Among his first public remarks, Abbott claimed “it could have been worse” and praised “valiant public officials” for their “quick response.” He apparently relied on partial and misleading information he personally collected from officials in interviews—without bothering to review data such as 911 calls and apparently ignored parents at the scene. The governor has publicly described his process: “I wrote hand notes in sequential order. When I came out on that stage and told the public what happened, it was a recitation of what everyone told me.”
Abbott later told the world he was “livid” and “misled” and walked back his praise. “As everybody has learned, the information I was given turned out, in part, to be inaccurate.”
When the governor acknowledged that his early praise for public officials was based on unreliable information, he was referring to his own interviews. He conceded that he used no judgment at all before praising law enforcement.
At one time, Abbott understood the basic legal duties. As a judge, he saw great trial and appellate lawyers in action; he understood the traits of competent lawyers.
Back in 2010, as the Democratic nominee for Texas Attorney General, I observed and personally engaged with Abbott, then the incumbent attorney general and my opponent. Back then, Abbott had already worked for a powerful law firm, became a district court judge, then a Supreme Court Justice. He seemed competent and could speak without notes. He seemed to have retained normal critical thinking and presentation skills as we sat answering pointed editorial board questions.
Yet, in May 2022, this supposedly competent professional thoughtlessly conducted key witness interviews in a mass murder case of international importance, then openly discussed his notes and the contents of the interviews and drew conclusions based on misleading and inaccurate information.
That’s the opposite of what mentally capable judges, executives, or trial lawyers do. To the extent that interviews with witnesses were appropriate at this stage by the rusty civil lawyer-governor (and they certainly seem inappropriate), he failed.
Under pressure and deadlines, a governor—and any trained lawyer—must use good judgment, stay calm, and think before deciding whether to insert themselves in any investigation involving potential crimes. It’s a monumental decision to interview witnesses or engage in other activities in any such matter,
Without an invitation from the investigators, the default should be: Let experts handle the work.
If a lawyer chooses to question potential witnesses in a potential criminal matter, they know their notes may be requested, and they may be asked for an accounting of what was said. Of course, no lawyer or law student is taught to accept as truth everything witnesses say the way Abbott apparently did, drawing conclusions about what happened during the shooting and publicly praising law enforcement.
Clearly, Abbott spoke to multiple sources, which means he inserted himself in the most important investigation he’s ever touched or tainted for a press opportunity. At the earliest stages of a massive investigation, the Texas Governor appears to have provided an opportunity for witnesses—whose conduct may be in issue—to collaborate, to create common defenses and themes.
The FBI is now investigating the response to the shooting.
When will we see the notes he took? The governor and the state of Texas must maintain the records of these interviews.
The governor now accuses the personnel he praised of providing inaccurate information—lies that, if they had been made to federal agents who are now investigating, could have been considered perjury. His notes and possible testimony about statements made by officials may be important to current investigations and prosecutions. They’re relevant both to ongoing criminal investigations and related legislative, executive, and judicial branch efforts throughout all levels of local, state, and federal governments and agencies who will continue to address issues related to this deadly school shooting for many years to come.
The Texas Governor, staff, lawyers, and law enforcement personnel know that they must preserve these Abbott-generated witness statements, handwritten notes, and materials from his interviews. Destruction of these documents would be misconduct far beyond incompetency.
Unfortunately, Abbott appears unfit for the hard job ahead, which will require him to deal with reality, including the effects of public policies he turned into laws allowing an 18-year-old to buy the gun used for the massacre.
Abbott’s notes may provide insight into terrible matters under investigation. And those notes can also demonstrate the level of the governor’s own mental impairment.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said Governor Greg Abbott was attending an official border event at the time of the Uvalde school shooting and arrived early at the scene. He was in Taylor County at the time of the shooting and did not arrive in Uvalde until the next day. The Texas Observer apologizes for the error.