Well, at least he’s found his calling in life.
In the six months before Ken Paxton won election as Texas attorney general last fall, he stayed largely out of sight. Under an ethical cloud amid claims of financial fraud, he avoided public events and rarely spoke to reporters, coasting to victory as part of new Republican leadership including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Lacking Patrick’s knack for political theater, and yet to display the lawyerly intellect of Abbott, his predecessor as the state’s top attorney, the 52-year-old former legislator struggled to emerge from their shadows during his first several months in office.
But now, even as his personal legal troubles resurface, Paxton is poised to claim his place in the sun as the state’s top culture warrior.
Two days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ long-standing same-sex marriage ban, Paxton issued an opinion telling county clerks with religious objections that pro bono lawyers were standing by to help defend them against legal challenges if they denied licenses to same-sex couples.
“Our religious liberties find protection in state and federal constitutions and statutes,” he said. “While they are indisputably our first freedom, we should not let them be our last.”
The missive launched him into the national consciousness, earning comparisons to George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who fought desperately to preserve racial segregation in the 1960s. Blasting Paxton for encouraging state officials to violate the law, a Democratic lawmaker has since asked the U.S. Justice Department to monitor the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The nonbinding opinion amounted to more of a statement of moral support than legal defiance. But to social conservatives — some beginning to feel abandoned by a governor who has declined their requests to call a special legislative session to address the issue of same-sex marriage — it bolstered the McKinney Republican’s standing as one of the last guardians of religious liberty.
“Texas often tries to bill itself as the most conservative state in the union, which isn’t very often the case actually. We have a reputation that we don’t live up to. But I think that Ken Paxton is living up to it,” said Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, which wields considerable influence in Republican primaries. “I haven’t heard anything from our governor, which is not surprising, but again disappointing.”
Even Patrick, who came to power with the backing of the conservative movement, has not avoided the perception that he failed to do enough as the Senate’s presiding officer to protect traditional marriage this session.
“There’s a lot of other things that should have been passed, that the rest of the Republican leadership caved into the homosexual demands — that would be Abbott and Patrick and [Speaker] Straus,” said Steve Hotze, a Houston doctor who operates the powerful Conservative Republicans of Texas political action committee.
Paxton’s office was “very instrumental” in pushing lawmakers to pass legislation affirming religious officials’ rights to refuse to perform same-sex marriages known as the Pastor Protection Act, said Hotze, whose group distributes mailers and scorecards to a vast network of GOP voters.
“Most people don’t understand, but Ken Paxton does understand the direction of this movement, and he is speaking out,” he said. “Abbott has been AWOL on the issue.”
Based on the questions about Paxton’s ethical compass, former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, the candidate who came in third in the primary, later endorsed Paxton opponent Dan Branch in the runoff.
But concerns about Paxton’s business matters did not dissuade conservatives in 2014, and don’t seem to have gained traction among them recently.
McCarty said Thursday she was not aware that Paxton could face a felony charge, but said it did not affect her support for him.
“This is how politics goes. People are always pressing charges and making frivolous suits just to smear someone’s name,” she said. “The general public doesn’t follow it closely enough to know when everything’s been cleared and that it was all trumped up for nothing. Until we have a conclusion, I would definitely side with Paxton and give him the benefit of the doubt because I just know that’s how these games are played.”
So this is where we stand. And just to add a little gasoline to the fire, there’s this:
As if Attorney General Ken Paxton didn’t have enough troubles with a potential felony indictment, now he’ll be fighting off an ethics complaint over his opinion on same-sex marriage.
Now long-time Travis County Democratic mainstay Glen Maxey has savaged that opinion as nothing more than political cant, and filed a complaint with the Texas State Bar Association against Paxton. In it, the Texas Democratic Party county affairs director alleges multiple violations by Paxton of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including that Paxton made a false statement of law that is “flatly inconsistent with the United States Constitution”, as well as violating the statutes defining his official duties, the oath of office as attorney general, and the terms of his license to practice law in the state of Texas.
In a statement Maxey, who was Texas’ first openly gay state representative, writes, ““It’s irresponsible for an elected official – and a lawyer – to tell other elected officials to break the law. He’s misleading county and state officials based on a false premise that they can discriminate against same-sex couples.”
You can see a copy of the complaint here. It’s not the first time someone has complained to the State Bar about Paxton. I’m not a lawyer and will pass on evaluating the merits of Maxey’s complaint. If that’s in your wheelhouse, by all means please chime in.
As for the larger issue with Paxton, all this raises the stakes on the grand jury/special prosecutor investigation against him. He can complain all he wants about being made a target, but he’s not being tried in Travis County and may have a hard time making that charge sound believable to anyone outside of Ms. McCarty’s circle. If he gets no-billed or manages to beat the charges one way or another, he’ll be in a very strong position politically. If he goes down, there could be collateral damage. At some point, Abbott and Patrick and the rest are going to have to decide if they want to stand by Ken Paxton or let him sink or swim on his own. I imagine there have been a few very off the record back-room discussions about how to play things if it all goes to hell for the state Republican brand. Trail Blazers and the Trib have more.