Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has cast Attorney General Ken Paxton’s upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate as like a real-world courtroom, with senators sitting as jurors and Patrick serving as judge.
“Would you go to a judge and say, ‘Judge, can you tell me how the case is going to turn out?’” Patrick, a Republican, said in a recent interview with WFAA-TV. “We will all be responsible as any juror would be.”
But in what legal experts say is a conflict of interest that would never be acceptable in normal judicial proceedings, the “defendant,” Paxton, owes the “judge,” Patrick, some $125,000 in outstanding campaign loans, according to campaign finance reports. And one of the “jurors,” state Sen. Angela Paxton, a Republican who is also Ken Paxton’s wife, is $600,000 in debt to her husband’s campaign, while he has served as a guarantor for millions more in funding.
Ethics experts say the conflicts are somewhat unavoidable in an impeachment — an inherently political process, where the figure on trial often has long political ties to those considering evidence against them.
“It is a conflict, and it would not be acceptable in a normal judicial proceeding, but an impeachment is abnormal,” said Jeremi Suri, a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Because the loans are still outstanding, “those start to feel to me like real conflicts,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“We don’t want a situation where the public doesn’t have faith that decisions by government officials are being made for the right reason,” Bookbinder said. “And where there are significant loans that may or may not be outstanding, as far as the public is concerned, it certainly raises questions about whether there could be conflicts, whether decisions could be affected by these financial interests.
“Given that, it seems like it’s the better course to step aside and not have those questions hanging out there,” he said.
“The fact that the trial is taking place in the state Senate means there is going to be politics involved,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a nonpartisan organization focused on government accountability. “Texans still should expect fairness and impartiality and you’re not going to get that if you have senators with conflicts serving as jurors.”
The financial connection to Patrick could be an especially significant red flag, given Patrick’s position in the process, said Gutierrez.
“His role is so much bigger,” Gutierrez said. “Any appearance of a conflict is probably more serious because he’s the one presumably presiding over this trial.”
I mean, my hopes were never that high for Dan Patrick, who is basically the judge in this proceeding, to be fair and impartial. Mostly, this gives me something tangible to point to, as if him being Dan Patrick wasn’t enough. There is room for my impression to change, mostly if he makes it clear that Angela Paxton should recuse herself. And if not, the truth is that he doesn’t have to do anything overt to affect the outcome of this trial. He’s got his minions in place. Enough of them will do what he wants, and they’ll know what that is without the need to be told. It’s cleaner that way. Reform Austin has more.