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Ahead of Paxton trial, Texas Senate reconvenes to set the ground rules

Angela and Ken Paxton attend their watch party during the Texas Primary, at the Sheraton in McKinney, Texas, on March 1, 2022. Angela Paxton won the race to remain in the Texas Senate, and Ken Paxton was forced into a runoff for Attorney General of Texas.
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Angela and Ken Paxton attend their watch party during the Texas Primary, at the Sheraton in McKinney, Texas, on March 1, 2022. Angela Paxton won the race to remain in the Texas Senate, and Ken Paxton was forced into a runoff for Attorney General of Texas.

Ken Paxton was impeached by the Texas House in late May and his fate now rests in the hands of the state Senate. The three-term attorney general is currently suspended and accused of multiple counts of misuse of office and other infractions.

The Texas Senate reconvenes Tuesday morning where it’s expected the chamber will be presented with the rules and procedures it will follow as it debates the future of embattled state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Paxton was suspended from office last month after the Texas House voted overwhelmingly to impeach the attorney general. The move came after a House investigating committee presented to the body 20 counts of alleged abuse of office, bribery and other infractions stemming from Paxton’s ties to a real estate developer and campaign donor.

The matter is now in the hands of the state Senate, whose 31 members will act as jurors in a trial that could result in Paxton’s permanent removal from the position he has held since 2015. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, will preside over the proceedings. Patrick has compared his role to that of an impartial trial judge in the state court system. Two-thirds of the Texas Senate would need to vote to remove Paxton. The pool includes state Sen. Angela Paxton, Paxton’s wife and the upper chamber’s GOP caucus leader. It’s unclear whether she will recuse herself during the proceedings. In all, the chamber is comprised of Patrick, 19 Republican senators and 12 Democrats.

Uncharted territory

Paxton is in rare company as only two elected officials have been removed from office in Texas through the impeachment process: a state district judge in the 1970s and former Governor James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917.

For even the most seasoned political observers, the Paxton impeachment effort is unchartered territory, said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Political Science Fellow at Rice University.

“The last one where there was political drama was, Pa Ferguson back in 1917. So there effectively is no one alive today — or at least who can remember that,” he told The Texas Newsroom.

The fact that there is no recent precedent — and because the Senate can craft its own rules of procedure — means there are a lot of unknowns heading into Tuesday’s session.

“Will it be more akin to a criminal trial, or will it be more of a more akin to a committee debate? What will the rules of evidence be?” Jones said. “Will senators be required to recuse themselves or will they be prevented from recusing themselves? One way to think about it, from a reader’s perspective, . it will [be] like a sporting match. They will be writing the rules under which the game will be played. And so, they can write them in such a way that helps or hurts the attorney general. And that helps or hurts the House managers attempting to impeach him.”

After the Texas House voted to impeach Paxton, state Rep. Andrew Murr, chairman of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, appointed 11 of his colleagues to serve with him as House impeachment managers. The board is comprised of seven Republicans and five Democrats and includes state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, who also serves as the vice-chair of the investigating committee.

Legal powerhouses gearing up for trial

The lead-up to Tuesday’s action has seen serious legal maneuvering by attorneys on both sides of the issue after Paxton and the Texas House impeachment managers have retained lawyers well-known in the Texas legal community.

On June 1, Murr introduced attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin as the team that will argue for Paxton’s removal. Hardin’s resume includes being a part of the Whitewater investigation against former President Bill Clinton, representing the trust of J. Howard Marshall II against model Ana Nicole Smith, representing all-star MLB pitcher and Texan Roger Clemens on charges he lied to the U.S. Congress, and former Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson.

DeGuerin’s legal highlights include defending former Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians whose battle against the federal government led to the deaths of dozens of people in Waco in 1993.

Hardin said he was “shocked” at the evidence against Paxton.

“This is not about a onetime misuse of an office. It's not about a two-time misuse of the office. It's about a pattern of misconduct and use in the office,” he told reporters.

Not to be outdone, Paxton retained Houston’s Tony Buzbee, whose resume includes representing former Gov. Rick Perry when criminal charges were brought against him nearly a decade ago. The charges were dropped. Buzbee also filed a lawsuit for $750 million on behalf of over 120 people who died or were injured at the Astroworld Festival in 2021. At least two families, represented by Buzbee, reached a private settlement. Also on Paxton’s legal team is Dan Cogdell, the same attorney representing him in his securities fraud case.

Buzbee’s first salvo against the House managers included his call for the Texas Senate to promptly decide the case against Paxton was brought without merit.

“Look at this foolishness, look at what has been put in front of you. If you even consider it — because no court of law would, no court of law in this country would even consider it — but if you decide to consider it should be thrown out in a one-page motion,” Buzbee told reporters earlier this month after he was introduced as Paxton’s lead counsel.

Buzbee’s habit of airing his grievances to the press has caught the attention of Murr’s team, who on Thursday wrote to the Senate committee that is crafting the proposed rules for the removal proceedings, the Texas Tribune reported.

“We fully appreciate that progress on the proposed rules is at or nearing completion; however, given Mr. Paxton’s counsel’s alarming public request for a sham trial, we wish to share with the committee the findings of our research of the rules that were used in the impeachment trials of Carrillo and Ferguson,” Murr wrote, referring to the former governor and the former state district judge O.P. Carrillo, who was impeached in 1975.

Murr also implored the Senate committee to consider following the same rules and procedures that were followed in each of those proceedings, including the right of both parties to cross-examine witnesses, the ability for House managers to present additional articles of impeachment, that the proceedings be open and televised and that the Senators debate in an open session, among others.

It’s unclear if the Senate will conclude the rules debate on Tuesday, but Paxton’s trial before the full chamber is expected to begin no later than late August.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar