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Not so fast on moving the Paxton trial back to Collin County

The special prosecutors have requested an en banc review of the three-judge panel ruling.

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Prosecutors in the felony fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton are asking the full 1st Court of Appeals to review a decision by a three-justice panel last month that moved the trial from Harris County back to Collin County, where Paxton lives, potentially adding another delay to a case that is nearly 6 years old.

In May, a panel of three Democratic justices in the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston allowed the case to return to Collin County on a vote of 2-1, ruling that the presiding judge who moved the case out of Collin County in March 2017 had no longer been assigned to the judicial region handling Paxton’s case. The ruling was a major victory for Paxton, who had asked the courts to be tried in his home county, a staunchly Republican area of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, are major political figures.

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In a court filing Tuesday, prosecutor Brian Wice accused Paxton’s legal team of “sandbagging” the courts by withholding information about the judge’s expired assignment so they could later raise the issue in an attempt to move the case back to Collin County.

Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher was handed the Paxton fraud case in August 2015 after the original judge in Collin County recused himself. At the time, Gallagher was temporarily assigned to the Collin County administrative judicial region, which is in a different region from Tarrant County. But his assignment only ran through Jan. 1, 2017.

Gallagher continued as the presiding judge after that date and issued his ruling to move the case out of Collin County in March 2017. That May, Paxton’s legal team asked an administrative court to block Gallagher’s ruling and remove him from the case because his temporary assignment had expired at the beginning of the year.

In his Tuesday request, Wice argued that Paxton’s team failed to bring up Gallagher’s expired term until after the change-of-venue ruling did not go in their favor, and asked the full 1st Court of Appeals to stay the three-justice panel’s decision until the full nine-justice court could review the ruling. Wice threw doubt on the idea that Paxton’s team came upon Gallagher’s expired temporary assignment only “by happenstance” and said the burden was on the attorney general’s defense team to show when it learned of the judge’s expired term.

The majority opinion had already rejected that argument, ruling that “nothing in the record shows a lack of reasonable diligence in bringing the challenge.” But Justice Gordon Goodman, who dissented in part, noted in his opinion that the court had no evidence as to “how or when Paxton’s counsel discovered that Gallagher’s assignment had expired.”

Wice argued that while a review of a panel decision by a full appeals court is usually not favored, it is the right move in this instance.

See here for the previous entry. As the story notes, it took the three-judge panel seven months to rule on the initial appeal, so if we’re lucky we might get a ruling from the full panel by the end of this year. The odds of getting Paxton into a courtroom to actually litigate the charges against him before November 2022 seem slim, but there’s no way to go but forward. Let’s hope the full 1st Court of Appeals hustles this thing along.

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