As you may recall, back in June we learned about a State Bar of Texas complaint against Ken Paxton for his ridiculous and seditious lawsuit that attempted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. That complaint was filed by four people: Kevin Moran, retired journalist, President of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Chew, former Chief Justice of the 8th Court of Appeals; Brynne VanHettinga, a now inactive member of the Texas Bar; and Neil Cohen, a retired attorney. A second complaint was later filed by Lawyers Defending American Democracy, part of a group that included four former Presidents of the State Bar of Texas.
I’ve had some email correspondence with Neil Cohen, who was introduced to me via a mutual friend, since that first complaint came to light. He sent me the following analysis of Paxton’s responses to the complaints:
Ken Paxton’s recent [7/15] Response to four Grievances arising from his December lawsuit to overturn the election demonstrates that his claims of a stolen election and of illegal voting procedures were merely posturing to improve his political standing. The top law officer of Texas put our system of democracy in grave danger for his own political benefit.
The Grievances charged that his lawsuit is filled with falsehoods and absurd legal claims, thus violating attorney disciplinary rules. Paxton’s response failed to defend large sections of the lawsuit. As to his claims of massive voting improprieties, Paxton stated that he had hoped to develop the evidence during trial. (1) That, however, was his only evidence in support of his stolen election claims. Thus, Paxton’s tacit admission that he has no evidence to support his claims is strong proof that there is no evidence of a stolen election. The “Big Lie” is indeed a big lie. His admission is also in marked contrast to his repeated claims in the month between the filing of the lawsuit and the meeting of the electors on Jan 6 that the election was stolen and his urging Trump supporters to take action. Those claims culminated in Paxton’s appeal to a mob to “keep fighting” shortly before they invaded the Capitol Building.
As to legal claims, Paxton did not offer a defense of several essential claims (2), including the most important, that the proper remedy was overturning the election and disenfranchising millions of voters. On the issue of standing, where by a 7-0 vote [two justices ruled based on other issues] the Supreme Court had rejected Paxton’s arguments that Texas had the right to dictate to four other sovereign states how they conducted their election lawsuit, Paxton merely reiterated his arguments.
Instead of better defending his lawsuit, Paxton instead relies on two very weak procedural arguments. First, the Bar shouldn’t hear the Grievances because the filers weren’t his client. (3) The Disciplinary Rules, however, specifically provide that anyone with information about rule violations can file a grievance. (4) He also argues, without citing cases specific to attorney discipline, that the separation of powers doctrine prevents a court system from disciplining an attorney general for a court filing. (5) This is contrary to the cases I found. (6) Also, moving from the abstract level of his argument to the specific facts of this case, Paxton is arguing for the privilege to lie and to bring lawsuits that lack any reasonable basis. That privilege is non-existent. In fact, an attorney appearing before a court acts as an officer of the court and is therefore subject to discipline from the court (and from the relevant bar associations).
The weakness of Paxton’s Response demonstrates that the lawsuit violates attorney disciplinary rules and that his claims of a stolen election are nonsense. Because of the serious consequences of Paxton’s action, including an invasion of the Capitol Building, the Bar should impose its most serious punishment, disbarment. In addition, Paxton should be removed from office.
1 Response, pp. 12-13.
2 What he did defend — See Response, p. 8 (standing), p. 10 (electors clause), p. 11 (equal protection and due process).
3 Response, p. 13.
4 https://www.law.uh.edu/libraries/ethics/attydiscipline/howfile.html The second question (which is not numbered) states, "Any person who believes that a rule of professional conduct has been violated may file a complaint with the State Bar." (emphasis added).
5 Response, p. 20
6 In re Lord, 255 Minn. 370 (Minn. 1959) • 97 N.W.2d 287; Massameno v. Statewide Grievance Committee, 234 Conn. 539 (Conn. 1995) • 663 A.2d 317.
As it happens, there was also a story in Salon about the complaint and Paxton’s limited and technicality-laden response to it:
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an ardent Trump supporter who was the lead plaintiff in a last-ditch Supreme Court case aimed at overturning the 2020 election, appears to be backing away from his past claims of widespread election fraud. Facing discipline or even potential disbarment in Texas, Paxton now merely alleges that there were “irregularities” in battleground states, while still suggesting those could somehow have affected the overall result
Paxton’s apparent retreat came earlier this month in response to an array of grievances filed by several members of the Texas bar: retired lawyer Neil Cohen; Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; former Texas Court of Appeals Chief Justice David Chew; and Dr. Brynne VanHettinga. In their initial complaint, the group argued that Paxton should face professional discipline over his bid to undermine the 2020 presidential election, saying that Paxton’s December petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that President Biden’s victory should be set aside, was both frivolous and unethical.
In Paxton’s response to their grievances, which was provided to Salon, the attorney general argued that “Texas’s filings were not frivolous” because “the 2020 election suffered from significant and unconstitutional irregularities in the Defendant States.” Paxton further claimed that, by this logic, he and his office “did not violate the disciplinary rules.”
Paxton’s response is a clear departure from his previous rhetoric, much of which explicitly supported former President Trump’s grandiose conspiracy theories about systemic election fraud. Earlier this month, Paxton told a Dallas crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his “fight” for election security “is not done.”
“When people tell you there is no election fraud, let me just tell you my office right now has 511 counts in court because of COVID waiting to be heard,” Paxton continued. “We have another 386 that we’re investigating. If you add those together, that’s more election fraud than my office has prosecuted since it started investigating election fraud years and years ago.”
Paxton is notably less bombastic in his response to the Texas bar, but mentions the same “irregularities” that his original Texas suit claimed had tainted the elections in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Effectively all of those supposed “irregularities” were changes in voting rules made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which created significant challenges for both in-person and absentee voting.
In an evident attempt to ward off the threat of disbarment, Paxton’s response seeks to explain why the suit had any legal basis or “standing.” He argues, somewhat confusingly: “Texas’s assertion that it had standing in Texas v. Pennsylvania could not have been frivolous. There are no Supreme Court cases contrary to its position that it had standing.”
But Paxton indirectly admits, in Cohen’s view, that he had no real evidence of fraud, and apparently “hoped to develop the evidence during discovery.” In other words, his entire case could be interpreted as a fishing expedition, or just an attempt to rile up the Trump base with unsupported allegations. “That’s in contrast to his behavior for the month after filing the lawsuit,” Cohen said, “when he repeatedly claimed the election was stolen and urged people to take action.”
So now you know. I have no idea when the State Bar may issue a ruling, and as richly as Paxton deserves to be disbarred, I can’t see them doing much more than issuing some kind of reprimand. But at least that would be something. My thanks to Neil Cohen for the info and the guest post.