Just a reminder, in case you needed it.
When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton held a news conference in May decrying state lawmakers’ anticipated vote to impeach him, he framed the decision as not only a threat to his political career but as one that endangered the slew of lawsuits he’d filed against the Biden administration.
Paxton, who has since been suspended from office, faces an impeachment trial that starts today. He has long positioned himself as one of the country’s strongest conservative attorneys general, relentlessly pursuing nearly 50 lawsuits against the federal government on issues that include immigration, health care and the environment. Such messaging raised Paxton’s national profile, appealed to his base of conservative supporters and helped him tamp down political pushback stemming from allegations of wrongdoing that have dogged his eight-year tenure.
But as Paxton has aggressively pursued such lawsuits, he has repeatedly declined to do a critical but less glamorous part of his job: represent state agencies in court.
Despite his role as Texas’ lead attorney, Paxton has denied representation to state agencies at least 75 times in the past two years, according to records obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. The denials forced some of those agencies to assume additional, unanticipated costs as they scrambled to secure legal assistance.
“Every time he backs out of one of these cases – and an agency, a university has to get outside counsel, if they get the funding approved – that’s costing the taxpayers a lot of extra money, because that’s one of the principal reasons the AG’s office exists, is to provide these basic legal services, basic legal defense,” said Chris Toth, former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Over the years, some of Paxton’s representation denials have become public. Among those is his longtime refusal to defend the state Ethics Commission against lawsuits filed by the now-disbanded Empower Texans, a political action committee, and the PAC’s then-head Michael Quinn Sullivan. Empower Texans contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign and loaned him $1 million, according to campaign finance reports. Another has been his choice not to represent the State Commission on Judicial Conduct after it issued a public warning to a justice of the peace who refused to perform same-sex marriages despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the unions.
But the scope of the denials has not been fully known. Neither have details of other times he has said no to state agencies seeking representation.
In one such instance, Paxton declined to represent the University of Houston–Clear Lake after students filed a lawsuit alleging the university wouldn’t recognize their organization because of the group’s requirement that its officers be Christian. Until then, the attorney general’s office had never before declined to represent the university in a case, said university spokesperson Chris Stipes.
In another instance, Paxton’s office not only held off on a decision to represent the University of Texas System in an affirmative action case, but also withheld a determination on whether the university could hire outside legal counsel, forcing multiple delays. That choice stands in contrast to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to represent the University of Texas at Austin in a similar case 15 years earlier when he was the state’s attorney general.
Texas lawmakers in 2021 required the attorney general’s office to begin reporting each time it declined to represent a state agency. It’s unclear what prompted the mandate.
ProPublica and the Tribune obtained records documenting dozens of denials through a Public Information Act request, but the vast majority do not include a clear reason for the decisions. The attorney general’s office declined to provide specifics about its communications with state agencies, including those that occurred before the reporting requirement went into effect, citing attorney-client privilege. The office also did not respond to a question about whether the agency tracked these denials prior to 2021.
Lawmakers took additional action this year, requiring the attorney general to start giving reasons for the denials beginning Sept. 1.
It’s a long story so go read the rest. I’ve mentioned a couple of these before but quite a bit of this was new to me. The issue with UT, in which Paxton neither defended them nor allowed them to hire their own counsel, was the most egregious, and it was only resolved after Paxton was suspended due to the impeachment. If it wasn’t clear why the wingnut billionaire class is all in on Paxton, it’s because he acts like their valet, deploying his office when it suits him and them and not doing so otherwise. There are plenty of loathsome figures in Texas politics, but Ken Paxton really is in a class by himself. Go read and see for yourself.