There are actually three counties suing him, not just the one I had originally noted.
At least three Texas counties — Tarrant, Williamson, and Harris — have sued Attorney General Ken Paxton and are asking a judge to strike down a legal opinion he released last year that says anyone can access voted ballots right after an election. The lawsuits allege Paxton’s opinion violates state and federal law, contradicts his own previous direction on the issue, and exposes local election administrators to potential criminal charges.
For decades, the attorney general’s office advised counties that voted ballots were to be kept secure for 22 months after an election, a timeframe mandated by federal law and Texas state election code. But only months before the November 2022 general election, even though neither law had changed, Paxton released an opinion saying the documents could be released to anyone who requested them, almost right after the ballots were counted.
Now, counties and election officials across the state are stuck. They can follow Paxton’s new opinion — which is only a written interpretation of the law — and potentially open themselves up to criminal penalties for violating state law, or they can defy the state attorney general and open up themselves to costly lawsuits.
That’s why now the counties are asking a judge to step in and settle the question.
Paxton’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. Paxton so far has filed a response only to Tarrant County’s lawsuit, which was filed in October and was the first of the three challenges. Paxton’s office denied the county’s claims.
Experts say the move by three different counties to challenge the Texas attorney general’s legal opinion speaks to the complicated position it has put local election officials in. His opinion, they say, has caused chaos, and has no basis in state law.
“These counties don’t have a choice. They have to worry about whether Ken Paxton is going to take action against them,” said Chad Dunn, an Austin-based attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Dunn said Paxton’s opinion “is laughable. The election code is clear. I’ll be just shocked if the state court system ends up agreeing with Ken Paxton and the ballots are public.”
The Texas attorney general’s office, including Paxton’s own administration, has affirmed this interpretation of the law since the 1980s. The practice of keeping the ballots preserved and confidential for 22 months, experts say, prevents the documents from being tampered with or compromised and protects the documents’ reliability in case there’s a request for recount or other election challenges.
Paxton released his opinion in August after a request from state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans, who said members of the public and legislators desired “to audit the outcome of Texas elections.” In a footnote, Paxton acknowledged that the attorney general’s office had issued a previous opinion in 1988, before he took office, saying unauthorized access to the ballots during the preservation period is prohibited. But the new opinion offers no clear explanation of his decision to change a decades-old precedent.
Paxton’s office “does not have the authority to make or change the law; that is a responsibility that solely rests with the Texas Legislature,” Tarrant County’s lawsuit says.
Paxton’s new opinion does not address the potential criminal exposure of election officials, who could be charged with a misdemeanor amounting to $4,000 in fines or up to a year in jail, or offer a clear timeframe of how quickly election clerks must provide the records to requesters.
“The Election Code provides a few limited circumstances where the custodian has express authority to access ballots prior to the 22-month expiration. Responding to [public information] requests is not one of those circumstances,” the Williamson County lawsuit says.
The three lawsuits are technically challenging Paxton’s Public Information Act decisions — which experts say is not an uncommon practice — and not his legal opinion directly. In order for counties to be able to challenge an attorney general’s opinion in court, the counties must have “standing and show a reason why it affects” them said Bob Heath, an Austin-based election and voting rights lawyer and a former chair of the opinions committee of the Texas attorney general’s office. The counties are doing so through the Public Information Act challenges that are based on Paxton’s decision, which Heath says is “wrong.”
“That’s a way to get to this opinion, and the opinion obviously poses a real problem for counties or for election administrators and county clerks,” Heath said.
See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said, I’m just waiting to see when the court will issue a ruling. After that, it’s a matter of what the Supreme Court will do. I have some hope, but these days that always has to be tempered with extreme anxiety. Stay tuned.