Once again, I say Wow.
In an unprecedented move, a Texas House committee voted Thursday to recommend that Attorney General Ken Paxton be impeached and removed from office, citing a yearslong pattern of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking that investigators detailed one day earlier.
During a specially called meeting Thursday afternoon, the House General Investigating Committee voted unanimously to refer articles of impeachment to the full chamber. The House will next decide whether to approve the articles against Paxton, which could lead to the attorney general’s removal from office pending the outcome of a trial to be conducted by the Senate.
No Legislature has impeached an attorney general, an extraordinary step that lawmakers have historically reserved for public officials who faced serious allegations that they had abused their powers.
The decision came minutes after a representative from Paxton’s office demanded Thursday to testify in front of the House committee probing Paxton’s alleged criminal acts and decried the committee’s actions as “illegal.”
Chris Hilton, chief of general litigation for the attorney general’s office, interrupted the five-member panel’s brief meeting to demand to testify on behalf of Paxton’s office. State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, shook his head and moved forward with the meeting, which went into executive session almost immediately after gaveling in.
“The people deserve to hear from this office in the context of this investigation,” Hilton said. “The voters want Ken Paxton, and this committee — by investigating him, by not allowing us to be heard here today, by never reaching out to us at any time during this investigative process — is trying to thwart the will of the voters. We deserve to be heard here today.”
Once the committee returned from meeting in private, members voted to issue “preservation letters” directing the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Facilities Commission to protect pertinent information. The committee did not discuss what information it wanted preserved.
Then committee members voted to adopt the articles of impeachment with discussion.
In a statement later Thursday, Paxton sought to turn the tables on allegations that he acted in a corrupt manner while in office, blaming the move toward impeachment proceedings on “corrupted politicians in the Texas House.”
“It is a sad day in Texas as we witness the corrupt political establishment unite in an illegitimate attempt to overthrow the will of the people and disenfranchise the voters of our state,” he said.
Only the Texas House can bring impeachment proceedings against state officials, which would lead to a trial by the Senate. Under the Texas Constitution, Paxton would be suspended from office pending the outcome of the Senate trial. The constitution also allows the governor to appoint an provisional replacement.
Removal from office would require the support of two-thirds of senators. This has happened only twice in Texas history, to Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.
After being rejected from testifying before the House investigating committee Thursday, Hilton told reporters the panel’s actions were illegal under a section of Texas law that says a “state officer may not be removed from office for an act the officer may have committed before the officer’s election to office.”
Hilton argued that the statute meant “any impeachment can only be about conduct since the most recent elections.”
On Twitter, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association said it’s unclear if Paxton could be impeached for conduct that occurred before his latest election. The so-called forgiveness doctrine prohibits “most” officials from being removed from office for conduct that predated their most recent election. But, the organization added, statutes outlining the doctrine have only been applied to local officials.
“Maybe we’ll get to see some new law made,” the organization added.
No Republican House members have yet called for Paxton’s impeachment. But Jeff Leach, R-Plano, urged the public to tune into Wednesday’s committee hearing, which he said would discuss “issues of vital importance.”
“Make no mistake,” Leach said on Twitter. “The Texas House will do our job and uphold our oaths of office.”
And Phelan, who in early May cited his role as the House’s presiding officer as the reason why he did not comment on sexual misconduct allegations against Slaton until after the chamber expelled him, has dropped that approach with Paxton. The speaker on Wednesday called the committee investigators’ report “extremely disturbing” and said Paxton “appears to have routinely abused his office for personal gain.”
Republicans for years have fended off questions about Paxton’s legal and ethical issues, variously deferring to courts to decide them and voters to determine if they were disqualifying. A key question is why the Republican-led House is acting against Paxton now.
Phelan said the House had an obligation to vet the whistleblowers’ claims because a proposed settlement between the four former employees and Paxton’s office would have cost $3.3 million — funds the Legislature would have to approve.
Murr expressed concern Wednesday that the settlement would help Paxton avoid a trial at which evidence of his alleged misdeeds would become public.
The Legislature can impeach any state officer, head of a state department or institution, and any member or trustee of a state institution, according to Texas law.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the process is similar to the national impeachment process with which many Texans are probably already familiar and resembles a court proceeding.
The House would be first to conduct proceedings. If members were to vote and approve impeachment, the matter would move to the Senate, which would hold its own trial.
The House would need to approve the impeachment on a two-thirds vote in order for it to advance, and the Senate would need to approve removing Paxton on a two-thirds vote. As in a state district court trial, both the House and Senate would each have the ability to call witnesses, compel testimony and hold potential witnesses in contempt.
The Legislature does not have to be in session for an impeachment to move forward, according to state law.
The House could start impeachment proceedings now, before the biennial session ends Monday. But if it does not, the governor can call the members into session, the law states. The House speaker also can do so if 50 or more members ask for it. Or a majority of members can compel a session if they sign a written proclamation.
The Senate has similar authority under the law to continue its work when not in session.
I’m far from certain that the votes will be there to dethrone Paxton, but the early chatter on the House side suggests that they will do their part and hand this hot potato off to the Senate. Assuming all 12 Democrats vote to convict, at least eight Republicans would have to do so as well, and that’s whether or not Sen. Angela Paxton recuses herself. (The mind boggles, I know.) In the meantime, as of the writing of this post, neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick has said anything. I cannot see them turning on their buddy, but this whole thing has been so utterly bizarre that I hesitate to make any guesses about what might come next.
I leave you with two tweets and then the rest of the links.
For those wanting to do some reading on #txlege impeachment procedure:
Tex. Const. Art 15. https://statutes.capitol.texas.gov/Docs/CN/htm/CN.15.htm
Tex. Govt. Code Ch. 665:
— Bonnie Bruce (@BonnieBruce) 5:03 PM – 25 May 2023
Working to overturn a free and fair election?
What kind of person would do that?
— Scott Braddock (@scottbraddock) 7:41 PM – 25 May 2023