Sunday, 19 May 2024

How Fighting for Conservative Causes Has Helped Ken Paxton Survive Legal Woes

A decade ago, in a courthouse north of Dallas, a lawyer forgot his $1,000 Montblanc pen in a metal detector tray and returned to find that it had been taken. A review of surveillance footage turned up the culprit: Ken Paxton, who was a Texas state senator.

A few years later, Mr. Paxton, by then the state’s attorney general, suffered a more serious political blow when he was indicted on charges of securities fraud. Then in 2020, several of his most senior staff members at the attorney general's office accused him of bribery, corruption and abuse of office.

Mr. Paxton has managed to survive it all, in large part because of the key role he has played as one of the most aggressive figures in the conservative legal movement. His challenges to the Obama and Biden administrations and his willingness to contest the results of the 2020 election garnered him the loyalty of Republican primary voters and the endorsement, during his re-election to a third term last year, of former President Donald J. Trump.

“Ken Paxton has served as the tip of the spear on so many of the legal fights about which conservatives care, whether it’s immigration or holding the big tech monopolists accountable,” said Mike Davis, a former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and the founder of the Article III Project, a nonprofit that promotes and defends conservative judges. He described Mr. Paxton’s style as “legal warfare.”

Now, facing his own political showdown in the Texas House of Representatives on Saturday as the House prepares to vote on impeaching him, Mr. Paxton made the stakes plain for his Republican supporters.

In a news conference on Friday, he reminded them that he was “leading dozens of urgent challenges against Biden’s unlawful policies” and said that the “illegal impeachment scheme” was playing into the Democrats’ longstanding goal of removing him from office. He then called on supporters to come to the State Capitol on Saturday “to peacefully come let their voices be heard."

Mr. Paxton’s position at the forefront of an increasingly confident and assertive effort by conservatives to use the law to push policy goals has meant that even now, as he faces opposition from some of his own Republican colleagues, he counts as his defenders many influential voices in the current Republican Party.

“Few in America have done more to advance the conservative legal movement, stop the lawless Biden executive onslaught, and defend our shared values,” wrote Stephen Miller, who served as a top adviser to Mr. Trump. “Stand with Ken.”

“What the RINOs in the Texas State House are trying to do to America First patriot Ken Paxton is a disgrace,” wrote Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., casting Mr. Paxton’s fight in some of the same terms that his father has used when battling with fellow Republicans he deems insufficiently conservative.

Mr. Paxton has led conservative legal challenges in states around the country, notably on immigration, where he has repeatedly challenged the Biden administration’s approach to the border. He successfully forced the administration to reinstate a Trump-era policy that compelled migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting immigration hearings, rather than be allowed to do so in the United States.

Mr. Paxton has also been leading a coalition of Republican-led states that for years has been trying to end an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects many migrants brought to the United States as children from deportation. Supporters of DACA have said that the program opened doors for many young people to finish college and enter the work force. Mr. Paxton and other opponents argued that it rewarded and encouraged illegal immigration. The protracted legal challenge has kept young undocumented people in a state of limbo.

“I’ve lost track of all the cases called Texas v. United States,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston who has filed briefs in support of some of Mr. Paxton’s cases.

During the Trump administration, Mr. Paxton would often go on defense, submitting letters and briefs in support of the Republican president when he faced lawsuits, such as over the ban on travel from certain countries and the repeal of DACA, Mr. Blackman said.

Mr. Paxton has been active in other areas as well, joining challenges to gun regulations around the country and leading a coalition of 17 states in an antitrust suit against Google, arguing that the company had abused its market power with digital advertisements to quash competition and hurt consumers. And he led a group of states challenging the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

“He’s the strongest conservative we’ve ever had as attorney general,” said Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Republican Party in Travis County, which includes Austin. “He’s been at war with the establishment for some time.”

Along the way, Mr. Paxton has made strong allies and many enemies, both among Democrats and within his own party, who have shuddered at the revelations of his various alleged misdeeds over the years, including using his office to try to conceal an extramarital affair. Most of those abuses were detailed in the 20 articles of impeachment presented to the Texas House on Thursday.

“My reaction to this is, frankly it’s frustrating that it took our state leadership so long to do something about his corruption,” said Rochelle Garza, a former Democratic nominee for attorney general who ran against Mr. Paxton in 2022. “They’ve been complicit with it for years.”

When it came to the expensive pen, a spokesman for Mr. Paxton explained at the time that Mr. Paxton had mistakenly picked it up and later returned it. Nevertheless, his Democratic opponent in the attorney general’s race in 2018 used the surveillance footage in an attack ad that also referenced Mr. Paxton’s criminal indictment on the securities fraud charges, a case that is still pending. “He won’t steal your pen,” the ad noted of the Democrat. Mr. Paxton won the race.

The allegations that form the basis of the articles of impeachment, set to be voted on at 1 p.m. on Saturday, have been publicly known for several years. Many were revealed in 2020, after his top aides accused him of abuse of office, mostly to benefit an Austin real estate investor who had contributed to his campaign, and reported their concerns to the F.B.I. The federal agency began an investigation, but no charges have been filed.

Four of the aides, conservative lawyers and senior officials in the attorney general’s office, were fired as a result. They subsequently filed suit.

The allegations prompted several Republican challengers to jump into the 2022 primary race against Mr. Paxton, including George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and the son of the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. Mr. Paxton won a primary runoff against Mr. Bush with nearly 70 percent of the vote, taking almost every county in Texas.

The impeachment process began after Mr. Paxton and his former aides said in February that they had reached a $3.3 million settlement in their suit, contingent on the state paying for it. Mr. Paxton requested that the funds be added to the budget, but the speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, said he did not believe it was a good use of taxpayer money. A committee of the House instead began its investigation into the request and underlying allegations.

The committee’s recommendation of impeachment for Mr. Paxton’s “grave offenses” on Thursday marked the first official judgment that his actions warranted potential removal from office.

Mr. Paxton, in his news conference on Friday, demonstrated that he would put up a fight. “The House is poised to do exactly what Joe Biden has been hoping to accomplish since his first day in office,” he said. “Sabotage our work, my work, as attorney general of Texas.”

Throughout the day on Friday, Republicans across Texas received text messages urging them to support Mr. Paxton. The chair of the Republican Party of Texas, a grass-roots organization often at odds with establishment leaders, issued a statement calling the impeachment a “sham” that was “empowering Democrats.”

Dan Rogers, the chair of the Republican Party in Potter County, which includes the city of Amarillo, sent a text message urging people to call their representative and voice support for Mr. Paxton. “He’s standing up against the federal government’s overreach and the ‘deep state’ that’s coming after our state sovereignty and individual sovereignty,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview.

On the floor of the House on Friday, Republican members could be seen talking in small groups before the session got underway. In one instance, two members loomed over another who was seated and, in quiet but forceful tones, appeared to be urging him to vote no.

“It’s hearsay, upon hearsay, upon hearsay,” one of them said, referring to the articles of impeachment and the testimony given by House committee investigators.

Soon after, a loud bang briefly halted conversation in the room: A Houston Republican member, Sam Harless, had opened his wooden desk and then quickly shut it because inside was a rubber snake.

Some in the chamber erupted in laughter. Mr. Harless smiled but appeared a little shaken at the practical joke that briefly lightened the mood. “I hate snakes,” he said.

Miriam Jordan and David Montgomery contributed reporting.

J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief, covering Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012. @jdavidgoodman

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