By José Medina
On Sept. 16, all but two Texas Republican state senators voted to acquit Ken Paxton and saved – at least for now – the scandal-plagued attorney general’s political life.
Now that he has dodged impeachment and expulsion from office, Paxton is back at work and still facing multiple legal problems. Meanwhile, the trial is causing a rift within the state Republican Party. Who knows what will become of Paxton – he has a pending felony criminal trial on state charges, is being investigated by a federal grand jury, and could face disbarment proceedings – or how the Texas GOP’s Civil War will end?
We know that the Paxton trial raised multiple issues that need fixing to ensure that any future impeachment leaves Texans confident that the process was on the up and up and free of undue influence.
Here are some of the things Public Citizen will push to fix in the coming months and years.
A moratorium on fundraising when an impeachment is pending
We don’t yet have a complete tally of how much money was thrown around by people who wanted Paxton acquitted or convicted. But thanks to campaign finance reports that were due a few weeks after the House’s impeachment vote, we know that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick received $3 million in donations and loans from a far-right PAC that is allied with Paxton and threatened primary challenges to any Republican who voted to boot the attorney general from office. The donation cast doubt over Patrick’s impartiality as the presiding judge of the impeachment trial. His post-trial angry tirade made his anti-impeachment views crystal clear.
Patrick has refused calls to return the cash. After the trial, the Texas Tribune reported that the PAC in question hosted a notorious white supremacist at its office in the Dallas area, prompting calls to donate the money to charity. As of this writing, Patrick is still holding onto the cash.
Under Texas law, legislators, including Patrick, are barred from accepting campaign contributions for periods before, during, and after a regular legislative session. We believe a similar moratorium should apply when an impeachment is pending. While we are at it, we should close the loophole that allows lawmakers to accept as much money as they want during special legislative sessions.
An end to limitless money
Texas is one of a few states that allow unlimited campaign contributions to state elected officials. According to his July 17 report to the Texas Ethics Commission, Paxton received $1.7 million from just six individuals who each gave at least $100,000 after the House impeached him. Limitless campaign contributions give the ultra-wealthy a disproportionate say in our democracy. This needs to end. We need state contribution limits.
The judge should know the law
Lt. Gov. Patrick is a shrewd politician who is always in control of the Senate he leads, but that wasn’t the case as he presided as the impeachment trial’s judge. Patrick has never been a judge or a lawyer, which showed during the impeachment trial. Despite having the assistance of a retired judge, Patrick, at times, looked lost and unsure of himself. He appeared to hand out rulings to one side based on whether he previously ruled for the other – much like a parent trying to treat their kids evenly.
Voters should have the opportunity to amend the state’s constitution to take the impeachment judge duties away from the lieutenant governor and assign them to a neutral jurist, perhaps the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Texas law doesn’t address how to deal with conflicts of interest during impeachment. For the Paxton trial, there was the obvious conflict of Sen. Angela Paxton, who was not allowed to vote in her husband’s trial but was allowed to vote weeks earlier on the trial rules. She was also present the entirety of the trial and freely mingled with her fellow senators, who, in this case, were also jurors.
There were also potential conflicts involving Sens. Bryan Hughes and Donna Campbell. Hughes was an unwitting participant in making a request of the attorney general’s office that was the basis for one of the impeachment charges against Paxton. At one time, Campbell employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair. Neither potential conflict was addressed, and the two senators participated in every aspect of the trial.
The potential conflicts of the senators mentioned above are just the ones we know of. It’s anyone’s guess what other conflicts might have existed.
We must fix the law to clarify how to address conflicts of interest.
The above items we’ve flagged for reforms are part of a list that will grow by the time lawmakers return to Austin for the next regular legislative session in January 2025. No one can promise a perfect impeachment process. Still, we can make some improvements to ensure Texans aren’t left to doubt the impartiality of the participants or are given legitimate reasons to believe the deep pockets of a few donors swayed the outcome.