The criminal justice system humiliates, maims and destroys some people. For a sick grandmother dependent on Social Security, traffic tickets can result in repeat trips to jail. A homeless, transgender woman accused of shoplifting from a department store can spend several days in solitary confinement. A great-grandmother jailed because of a psychiatric crisis can waste away behind bars — “ignored to death,” as her family alleges.
However, these are largely hazards for poor people, not Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, someone with the kind of wealth and power that can bend the system in his favor. Paxton was charged with three felonies shortly after taking office in 2015. But his legal woes have since largely faded into oblivion, thanks to a gaggle of wealthy supporters and North Texas GOP allies who have waged a yearslong legal war to defang the prosecution. A decision by the state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday could be the coup de grâce that finally ends the case.
As I wrote last year, Paxton’s felony charges — two first-degree counts of securities fraud and one third-degree count of failing to register as an investment advisor — stem from allegations that have dogged the tea party darling ever since he first ran for statewide office in 2014. After he was indicted on his home turf of Collin County in July 2015, the local district attorney, a friend and sometimes business partner of Paxton’s, stepped aside and a judge hired three high-profile Houston attorneys to prosecute the attorney general at a $300-an-hour rate.
In December 2015, a Paxton acolyte and multimillionaire real estate developer from north Texas named Jeffory Blackard filed a lawsuit attempting to force Collin County officials to stop paying the lawyers they’d hired to go after the attorney general. Blackard argued the county’s standard rules for appointed attorneys capped pretrial work at $1,000 per attorney, a far cry from the nearly half a million dollars the three lawyers say they’re owed for their first two years of work on Paxton’s case. Blackard also asked the court to invalidate a local rule giving judges discretion to diverge from the preset fee schedule in high-profile cases — like, say, the prosecution of a sitting attorney general. Nearly two thirds of Texas counties have rules giving judges such discretion.
After Blackard filed his lawsuit, tea party activists started to flood Collin County Commissioners Court meetings, demanding officials defund Paxton’s prosecution. Commissioners, most of whom had campaigned for or donated to Paxton over the years, eventually sued to block payments to the prosecutors. The criminal case against Paxton has basically been on hold ever since.
In November, two weeks after Paxton won re-election, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Collin County commissioners could block payments to the lawyers hired to prosecute the case. The special prosecutors asked the court to reconsider, but on Wednesday, the court upheld its decision and rejected their appeal without explanation. The lawyers have indicated in previous legal filings that they’ll quit if they don’t get paid. It’s unclear how the case would move forward if they do.
Brian Wice, one of the lawyers who hasn’t been paid for work on the case in years, wouldn’t answer questions when reached by phone Wednesday but emailed a statement on behalf of the special prosecutors: “We’re disappointed that the Court took six months to summarily deny our motion for rehearing without addressing any of the substantial legal issues it raised, something it routinely criticizes the courts of appeals for doing.”
Legal experts say the fallout from the case could have broader consequences. District attorneys have warned that the appeals court decisions in Paxton’s case could make it more difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute well-heeled, high-profile officials, especially if they’re accused of crimes close to home. Defense lawyers say this precedent could harm poor defendants by preventing judges from appointing qualified lawyers to complex cases.
Call it criminal justice reform Ken Paxton-style, where you bend the system in favor of the rich, powerful and well-connected at the expense of the poor.