By José Medina
One of the biggest political stories in recent memory is about to go to trial in the Texas Senate. Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been under a cloud of scandal almost from his first day on the job in 2014, will try to save his political life.
Following a state House committee investigation, in late May the full Texas House voted bipartisanly and overwhelmingly to impeach the Republican attorney general and forward the charges for a trial in the Senate.
Texas hasn’t seen an impeachment trial of a statewide official in more than a century. If at least 21 state Senators vote to convict Paxton, he becomes only the second statewide elected to be impeached and removed from office.
Such a rare occurrence is bound to raise questions.
Why was Ken Paxton impeached?
Multiple reasons. But the bulk of the 20 articles of impeachment center on the attorney general’s friendship with Nate Paul, a wealthy real estate developer.
The House impeachment managers allege Paxton used his office to benefit Paul, including helping the developer fend off a federal investigation. Paxton, in return, benefitted from Paul’s wealth. The allegations include Paul paying to renovate Paxton’s home in Austin and helping the attorney general conceal an extramarital affair. The woman with whom Paxton was having an affair, the articles say, was later hired by Paul.
Paxton is married to state Sen. Angela Paxton, who will not be allowed to vote in her husband’s Senate trial but will be present during the proceedings. Public Citizen has said that barring Sen. Paxton is good but not enough. We’ll explain below when we get to the witnesses.
Paxton’s relationship with Paul was cause for concern for several of the attorney general’s top aides. In 2020, the aides blew the whistle. They reported Paxton’s alleged actions to the agency’s human resources department and law enforcement. Paxton then fired or forced the aides to resign, according to a lawsuit filed by four of the aides against the attorney general’s office under the state’s Whistleblower Act. The two sides reached a settlement agreement that would have Paxton issue an apology and the state pay $3.3 million to the whistleblowers. Paxton’s request to the Legislature to fund the settlement triggered the House’s investigation and the subsequent overwhelming vote to impeach. The House impeachment managers have portrayed the settlement as Paxton’s taxpayer-funded attempt to make the lawsuit disappear and keep the full details of the whistleblower allegations from the public.
When does the trial start, and how long will it last?
The day after Labor Day, at 9 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 5. At the outset, we will have the first historic moment when Paxton officially enters a plea to the allegations. Barring a shocking reversal by Paxton, he will plead not guilty.
The first day will also feature a pivotal vote on a pending motion to dismiss the charges.
As for how long the trial will go, feel free to guess. The prosecution and defense will each get 24 hours to argue their case, and the witness list is over 100. And then, senators will go into closed deliberations.
Will there be cameras?
As with all Senate floor proceedings, the trial will be streamed on the upper chamber’s website. Two press pool cameras will also be on the Senate floor to feed the day’s footage to the news media.
If you want to watch it in person, you must get in line for a free ticket each morning. Because Lt. Gov. Patrick will continue to exclude the press from the Senate floor – except for the pool cameras – you will have to compete with members of the state and national media and other interested parties to grab a ticket to sit in the gallery.
Will Ken Paxton testify?
He can, but probably won’t. Whether the impeachment managers can call Paxton to testify in the first place will be voted on by senators. Because the impeachment allegations could also overlap with a reported federal investigation, Paxton could incriminate himself by testifying and instead invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.
Who are the possible witnesses?
You’ll see some familiar names if you follow Texas politics.
Notable Possible Prosecution Witnesses
- Ken Paxton and Nate Paul: Paul is already facing federal charges accusing him of falsifying business records. If Paul, like Paxton, is called to testify, he, too, could take the Fifth.
- Paxton’s alleged mistress: The woman previously worked for one of the jurors: Republican state. Sen. Donna Campbell.
- The whistleblowers who reported Paxton’s alleged corrupt use of his office
Notable Possible Defense Witnesses
- Sen. Angela Paxton: She is no longer expected to testify. After initially being listed as possible defense witness, two sources told the Austin American-Statesman that the senator’s name was removed from an amended witness list.
The attorney general’s wife holds the Senate seat he once held and has been mostly mum about the allegations. As noted above, the Senate-approved trial rules will not allow her to vote on her husband’s political fate. However, Texas law requires the attendance of all senators for impeachment trials. Public Citizen has been vocally opposed to any involvement by the senator in the proceedings, arguing that the law doesn’t require them to stay on the Senate floor. When the Senate is in session, senators regularly register their attendance at the start of the day and are in and out of the chamber as needed. While she can’t be forced to do it, Public Citizen argues that Sen. Paxton could register her attendance at the start of the day as required by law and then leave the chamber.
In what world would the defendant’s spouse be allowed to sit on the jury? She may not be allowed to vote, but she can engage with other senators – the jurors – on the Senate floor and in private. It makes no sense.
Sen. Paxton could conceivably still testify, which would create yet another conflict.
- Sen. Bryan Hughes: The Republican senator from Mineola gets mentioned in the impeachment articles as the unwitting requestor of an attorney general’s opinion that could benefit Paul.
- George P. Bush and Eva Guzman: Bush, nephew and grandson of the Bush presidents, is the former Texas land commissioner who lost to Paxton in the 2022 Republican primary for attorney general. Guzman is a former Texas Supreme Court Justice who also lost to Paxton in the Republican primary.
- Karl Rove: The Republican strategist and George W. Bush administration member has been a critic of Paxton, recently writing this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. By the way, former Gov. Rick Perry, though not a witness, wrote his own WSJ piece shaming Paxton allies for pressuring senators to vote for acquittal.
- The whistleblowers are also on the defense witness list.
What happens if Ken Paxton is convicted?
Per Texas law, Paxton was immediately suspended from his job without pay when the House voted to impeach him. If convicted, he permanently loses his job and may be barred from ever holding public office again. He would then be free to focus on his other legal problems, of which there are several. It would then be up to Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint an acting attorney general who could serve until voters pick a permanent replacement in the 2024 general election.
What happens if Ken Paxton is acquitted?
He returns to his job but his other legal issues don’t go away. In addition to the reported federal investigation, Paxton faces state securities fraud charges for which a trial has been scheduled for October in Harris County. The State Bar of Texas could also move to disbar him (disbarment wouldn’t necessarily push him out because the Texas Constitution does not require the attorney general to be a licensed attorney). And if the Legislature refuses funding of the whistleblower settlement, the case will proceed to trial.
Who are the attorneys for each side?
There are high-profile attorneys involved.
Prosecuting the case for the House impeachment managers are Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin. Hardin has represented several professional athletes and defended the accounting firm tied to the Enron collapse. DeGuerin is best known for his criminal defense work. He has represented former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, real estate heir and convicted murderer Robert Durst, and cult leader David Koresh.
On Paxton’s side, Tony Buzbee leads the defense. Buzbee is a trial attorney who has also represented pro athletes and was involved in litigation in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Buzbee previously ran unsuccessfully for Houston mayor and is running for a city council seat this year.
There has been big money trying to influence the outcome, right?
Yes, lots of cash. So much that Public Citizen will advocate for state campaign finance reforms when the Legislature next meets in January 2025.
With the trial looming, Lt. Gov. Patrick in June accepted $3 million — a $1 million donations and a $2 million loan — from a pro-Paxton PAC. Four days before the trial, a Patrick spokesperson announced that the lieutenant governor would not accept donations or fundraise during the trial. That’s all fine and good, but we say the pledge is inadequate unless Patrick returns the cash.
The Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses, and the House impeachment managers have also pledged to not take campaign cash during the trial.
Through the very well-funded Defend Texas Liberty PAC, former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland has promised to primary Republicans who vote for impeachment. Defend Texas Liberty is the same PAC that gave Patrick $3 million.
So, will the Senate vote to convict, or will Paxton survive?
We won’t make predictions. The House vote to impeach was overwhelming – 121-23 – and bipartisan. Some of the most conservative members of the House Republican majority voted with almost all Democrats to send Paxton to trial. It indicated that even a significant number Republicans have grown tired of Paxton’s running list of scandals.
But the Senate is different. The upper chamber often bends to the will of Lt. Gov. Patrick, who serves as Senate president and enjoys a party split of 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats. If you assume that all Democrats – no fans of Paxton – vote to convict, are there at least 9 Republicans willing to join them? That is the biggest of the many questions that will be answered in the coming weeks.
Correction: This post has been updated to correct Eva Guzman’s party affiliation and to clarify that an acting attorney general appointed if Paxton is convicted in the Senate could serve until voters choose a permanent replacement in the 2024 general elections, not 2026.