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Texas attorney general impeached, suspended pending outcome of Senate trial

Ken Paxton over the last decade has targeted LGBTQ people

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The Texas House of Representatives voted to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton on May 27, 2023. (Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune)

Editor’s note: For the vast majority of the past 10 years the Texas attorney general has waged a relentless campaign to limit the rights and equality of LGBTQ Texans, especially transgender Texans. Today’s vote is significant in terms of the possibility that a Senate conviction would offer a potential respite from Paxton’s attacks on the LGBTQ community.

By  Zach Despart and James Barragan AUSTIN, Texas | In a history-making late-afternoon vote, a divided Texas House chose Saturday to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, temporarily removing him from office over allegations of misconduct that included bribery and abuse of office.

The vote to adopt the 20 articles of impeachment was 121-23.

Attention next shifts to the Texas Senate, which will conduct a trial with senators acting as jurors and designated House members presenting their case as impeachment managers.

Permanently removing Paxton from office and barring him from holding future elected office in Texas would require the support of two-thirds of senators.

The move to impeach came less than a week after the House General Investigating Committee revealed that it was investigating Paxton for what members described as a yearslong pattern of misconduct and questionable actions that include bribery, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. They presented the case against him Saturday, acknowledging the weight of their actions.

“Today is a very grim and difficult day for this House and for the state of Texas,” Rep. David Spiller (R-Jacksboro), a committee member, told House members.

“We have a duty and an obligation to protect the citizens of Texas from elected officials who abuse their office and their powers for personal gain,” Spiller said. “As a body, we should not be complicit in allowing that behavior.”

Paxton supporters criticized the impeachment proceedings as rushed, secretive and based on hearsay accounts of actions taken by Paxton, who was not given the opportunity to defend himself to the investigating committee.

“This process is indefensible,” said Rep. John Smithee (R-Amarillo), who complained that the vote was taking place on a holiday weekend before members had time to conduct a thorough review of the accusations. “It concerns me a lot because today it could be General Paxton, tomorrow it could be you and the next day it could be me.”

Saturday’s vote temporarily removes a controversial but influential Republican figure in Texas and nationally. He has led an office that initiated lawsuits that overturned or blocked major Biden and Obama administration policies, sought to reverse Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020, aggressively pursued voter fraud claims and targeted hospitals that provided gender care to minors.

The Legislature had impeached state officials just twice since 1876 — and never an attorney general — but the House committee members who proposed impeachment argued Saturday that Paxton’s misconduct in office was so egregious that it warranted his removal.

“This gentleman is no longer fit for service or for office,” said committee member Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston). “Either this is going to be the beginning of the end of his criminal reign, or God help us with the harms that will come to all Texans if he’s allowed to stay the top cop on the take, if millions of Texans can’t trust us to do the right thing, right here, right now.”

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), a member of the investigative committee, used his presentation time to criticize Paxton for calling representatives as they worked on the House floor to “personally threaten them with political consequences in the next election” if they supported impeachment.

Speaking against impeachment, Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), called the process “wrong.”

“Don’t end our session this way. Don’t tarnish this institution,” Tinderholt said. “Don’t cheapen the act of impeachment. Don’t undermine the will of the voters. Don’t give Democrats another victory handed to them on a silver platter.”

The vote came as hardline conservatives supportive of Paxton’s aggressive strategy of suing the Biden administration were lining up in support of him. Former President Donald Trump — a close political ally to Paxton — blasted the impeachment proceedings as an attempt to unseat “the most hard working and effective” attorney general and thwart the “large number of American Patriots” who voted for Paxton.

Trump vowed to target any Republican who voted to impeach Paxton.

As lawmakers listened to the committee members make their case, Paxton took to social media to boost conservatives who had come to his defense, including Trump, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and conservative radio host Grant Stinchfield, who tweeted, “Kangaroo Court in Texas.”

About 90 minutes into the debate, the official Twitter account of the Texas attorney general’s office began tweeting at members of the committee to challenge some of the claims being made.

“Please tell the truth,” the agency’s account said.

Because Paxton was impeached while the Legislature was in session, the Texas Constitution requires the Senate to remain in Austin after the regular session ends Monday or set a trial date for the future, with no deadline for a trial spelled out in the law.

Impeachment represents the greatest political threat to date for Paxton, who has been reelected twice despite a 2015 indictment for felony securities fraud and an ongoing federal investigation into allegations of official misconduct that began in 2020.

The impeachment vote, on the third-to-last day of the regular legislative session, capped a tumultuous week at the Capitol. From Tuesday to Thursday:

  • Paxton abruptly accused House Speaker Dade Phelan of presiding over the chamber while drunk and demanded that he resign.
  • The House General Investigating Committee revealed it had been investigating Paxton in secret since March.
  • The committee heard a three-hour presentation from its investigators detailing allegations of corruption against the attorney general.
  • The committee’s three Republicans and two Democrats voted to forward 20 articles of impeachment to the full House.

Paxton, who was comfortably elected to a third term last year, made a rare appearance before assembled reporters Friday to criticize the process, saying he was not given a chance to present favorable evidence. He called impeachment an effort by Democrats and “liberal” Republicans to remove him from office, violating the will of voters and sidelining an effective warrior against Biden administration policies.

“The corrupt politicians in the Texas House are demonstrating that blind loyalty to Speaker Dade Phelan is more important than upholding their oath of office,” Paxton said. He added, “They are showcasing their absolute contempt for the electoral process.”

Many of the articles of impeachment focused on allegations that Paxton had repeatedly abused his powers of office to help a political donor and friend, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

In fall 2020, eight top deputies in the attorney general’s office approached federal and state investigators to report their concerns about Paxton’s relationship with Paul.

All eight quit or were fired in the following months, and most of the details of their allegations against Paxton were revealed in a lawsuit by four former executives who claim they were fired — in violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act — in retaliation for reporting Paxton to the authorities. Paxton’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit is awaiting action by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals.

According to the lawsuit, the whistleblowers accused Paxton of engaging in a series of “intense and bizarre” actions to help Paul, including intervening in an open-records case to help Paul gain documents from federal and state investigations into the real estate investor’s businesses. They also accused Paxton of directing his agency to intervene in a lawsuit between Paul and a charity, pushing through a rushed legal opinion to help Paul avoid a pending foreclosure sale on properties and ignoring agency rules to hire an outside lawyer to pursue an investigation helpful to Paul’s businesses.

In return, the whistleblower lawsuit alleged, Paul paid for all or part of a major renovation of a home Paxton owns in Austin. Paul also helped Paxton keep an extramarital affair quiet by employing the woman Paxton had been seeing, the lawsuit said, adding that the attorney general may also have been motivated by a $25,000 contribution Paul made to Paxton’s campaign in 2018.

In their report to the House General Investigating Committee on Wednesday, the panel’s investigators concluded that Paxton may have committed numerous crimes and violated his oath of office.

Investigators said possible felonies included abuse of official capacity by, among other actions, diverting staff time to help Paul at a labor cost of at least $72,000; misuse of official information by possibly helping Paul gain access to investigative documents; and retaliation and official oppression by firing employees who complained of Paxton’s actions to the FBI.

The articles of impeachment accused Paxton of accepting bribes, disregarding his official duties and misapplying public resources to help Paul.

The articles also referred to felony charges of securities fraud, and one felony count of failing to register with state securities officials, that have been pending against Paxton since 2015, months after he took office as attorney general. The fraud charges stem from Paxton’s work in 2011 to solicit investors in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney company was paying him for the work.

The impeachment articles also accused Paxton of obstruction of justice by acting to delay the criminal cases with legal challenges and because a Paxton donor pursued legal action that limited the pay to prosecutors in the case, causing further delays “to Paxton’s advantage.”

Taken in total, the accusations showed a pattern of dereliction of duty in violation of the Texas Constitution, Paxton’s oaths of office and state laws against public officials acting against the public’s interest, the impeachment resolution said.

“Paxton engaged in misconduct, private or public, of such character as to indicate his unfitness for office,” the articles said.

An attorney general had never before been impeached by the Legislature, an extraordinary step that lawmakers have reserved for public officials who faced serious allegations of misconduct. Only two Texas officials have been removed from office by Senate conviction, Gov. James Ferguson in 1917 and District Judge O.P. Carrillo in 1975.

If Paxton is to survive, he will need to secure the support of 11 senators. With the 12 Democratic senators likely to support his removal, votes for acquittal would need to come from the 19 Republican members.

None has publicly defended Paxton. In a television interview Thursday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said merely that he believed senators would be responsible jurors and “do their duty.”

A complicating factor is Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), Paxton’s wife. State law requires all senators to attend an impeachment trial, though whether she will recuse herself from voting is unclear.

Paxton’s political base lies in the far-right faction of the Republican Party, where he has positioned himself as a champion of conservative causes and a thorn in the side of Democratic President Joe Biden. Paxton has criticized his opponents as RINOs (Republicans in name only) who “want nothing more than to sabotage our legal challenges to Biden’s extremist agenda by taking me out.”

He also retained the backing of the state Republican Party, led by former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, who frequently attacks Republicans he considers to be insufficiently conservative. On Friday, Rinadi said the impeachment was Phelan’s fault for allowing Democrats to have too much influence in the House.

“The impeachment proceedings against the Attorney General are but the latest front in the Texas House’s war against Republicans to stop the conservative direction of her state,” Rinaldi said in a statement.

Paxton also has maintained a close relationship with Trump and filed an unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the 2020 presidential election. Paxton also spoke at Trump’s rally on Jan. 6, 2021, shortly before the president’s supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol.

Related:

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Zach Despart’s staff photo

Zach Despart

[email protected]

@zachdespart

James Barragán’s staff photo

James Barragán

[email protected]

@James_Barragan

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The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

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Texas

Federal judge halts Texas porn law, says violates First Amendment

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Blade Graphic

U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction Aug. 31 that blocked a Texas law from taking effect the following day that would have required adult websites to use “reasonable age verification methods,” such as government ID, to ensure users who are accessing explicit content are aged 18 or older. 

The law, Texas House Bill 1181, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed on June 12, 2023, also required that websites display in 14-point font or larger the following warning: “Pornography is potentially biologically addictive, is proven to harm human brain development, desensitizes brain reward circuits, increases conditioned responses, and weakens brain function.” There were provisions in the law that should the website operators fail to adhere to the requirements, Texas attorney general would be able to sue non-complaint adult websites for $3 million per year.

In his ruling, Ezra noted that:

  • The law violates First Amendment rights of creators and consumers
  • The law has a chilling effect on legally-protected speech
  • Parental filters are a less restrictive and more effective method of protecting minors
  • The state does not have the right to compel speech in the form of health warnings

“The state has a legitimate goal in protecting children from sexually explicit material online,” Ezra wrote and added: “But that goal, however crucial, does not negate this Court’s burden to ensure that the laws passed in its pursuit comport with established First Amendment doctrine.”

“This is a huge and important victory against the rising tide of censorship online,” says Alison Boden, executive director of Free Speech Coalition. “From the beginning, we have argued that the Texas law, and those like it, are both dangerous and unconstitutional. We’re pleased that the court agreed with our view that HB1181’s true purpose is not to protect young people, but to prevent Texans from enjoying First Amendment protected expression. The state’s defense of the law was not based in science or technology, but ideology and politics.”

The Free Speech Coalition has argued that these new and expensive verification technologies present an unreasonable burden for both sites and users, stressing that members of the adult industry already register with parental filters and other software to help parents easily block adult content.

“The ruling rebuffs nearly every argument made by state legislatures, and not only in Texas,” says Boden. “While Texas presented the most straightforward path to securing a ruling like this, the issues are the same whether in Utah, Louisiana or Virginia. Anyone who attempts to bring a case in those jurisdictions faces little hope of success. We are thrilled with the decision and thank our co-plaintiffs for joining this battle and defending the industry. We are confident that the law will ultimately be struck down permanently.”

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Texas

Woman charged with threatening judge, Democratic congresswoman, LGBTQ people, others

Abigail Jo Shry made threats in voicemail to judge’s chambers

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U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU 11 News)

A Texas woman has been charged with threatening to kill U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing one of the cases against former President Donald Trump, along with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Democrats in D.C. and LGBTQ people.

Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service filed a criminal complaint on Aug. 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas accusing 43-year-old Abigail Jo Shry of relaying the threats in a voicemail to Churkan’s chambers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Aug. 5.

According to the filing, Shry began her message by addressing the judge — who, along with Lee, is Black — with racist language, including the n-word, before vowing “to kill anyone who went after” Trump, “including a direct threat to kill” the congresswoman, Democrats in D.C. and “all people in the LGBTQ community.”

“If Trump doesn’t get elected in 2024,” she said, “we are coming to kill you, so tread lightly, bitch.”

Chutkan was assigned to the case prosecuting Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. On Friday, granting a request from the prosecutor in the case, Special Counsel Jack Smith, she issued a protective order against the former president warning him against making “inflammatory statements” about the case.

“The more a party makes inflammatory statements about this case which could taint the jury pool or intimidate potential witnesses, the greater the urgency will be that we proceed to trial to ensure a jury pool from which we can select an impartial jury,” Chutkan said.

Investigators who traced Shry’s voicemail to her cell phone say she denied having any plans to travel to D.C. or Houston to carry out the threats but warned that if Lee “comes to Alvin, then we need to worry.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Sheldon denied bail for Shry on the grounds that she had been charged several times for similar conduct over the past year, ordering that she be detained for 30 days.

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Texas

Texas governor signs ‘Save Women’s Sports Act’

Transgender athletes barred from teams that correspond with their gender identity

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Texas Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs the “Save Women’s Sports Act” on Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday signed Senate Bill 15, or the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” which bars transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity at Texas universities and colleges. 

The law specifies that athletes compete on teams corresponding to the student’s biological sex listed on their birth certificates. Monday’s signing at the Blagg-Huey Library on the campus of Texas Woman’s University was purely ceremonial, as the governor had previously signed the measure two months ago.

“The legacy of women’s sports will be safeguarded for generations to come because of the law I am about to sign,” Abbott said. “Women in Texas can be assured that the integrity of their sports is protected in our great state.”

The Dallas Morning News reported that in addition to conservative lawmakers and other interested parties, Abbott was joined by former college athletes Riley Gaines and Paula Scanlan. Gaines, who attended the University of Kentucky, has built a media career stemming from her appearance at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships in March 2022. During the 200 freestyle event she tied with Lia Thomas, a trans student athlete from the University of Pennsylvania. Scanlan was on the swim team with Thomas.

“This is huge news, not only for Texans but for girls across the country,” said Gaines. “This new law will protect the integrity of women’s sports by prohibiting men from competing against women’s athletes at Texas colleges and university.

“It’s pretty amazing that this law is even necessary,” Gaines continued. “If you have eyes and a brain and any amount of common sense, you can easily comprehend the fact that men, on average — and this is a fact — are taller, stronger, more powerful, can jump higher than women. It’s biological reality.”

When asked by a reporter if he understood that in the eyes of the LGBTQ community the law made them feel marginalized and how would respond to that Abbott snapped back that women like Gaines and Scanlan — not LGBTQ people — were the true victims of marginalization.

“These are the women who committed their lives — altered their lives — so that they can compete, and yet you heard Riley talking about how she was marginalized,” Abbott said. “She was the winner, and she was denied that victory.”

The Dallas Morning News noted that critics charge that the law seeks to address an issue that largely doesn’t exist. Only about three dozen openly trans athletes have competed at the collegiate level across the country, and none have been known to compete at a Texas college or university.

Asked by the Dallas Morning News about that criticism during a news conference after the bill signing, Abbott laughed but did not answer.

Also present outside the library as the event was underway were about 200 protestors, many who spoke with the Dallas Morning News telling the paper they believed the Abbott’s priorities were out of step with the wishes of the majority of Texans.

Asked by the Dallas Morning News about that criticism during a news conference after the bill signing, Abbott laughed but did not answer.

Also present outside the library as the event was underway were about 200 protestors, many who spoke with the Dallas Morning News telling the paper they believed the Abbott’s priorities were out of step with the wishes of the majority of Texans.

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