After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.
The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.
Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.
Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.
See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.
At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.
Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.
The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.
That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.
That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.