It was quiet under the pink dome the day SB 341 passed, a bill set forth by Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), which stipulates private attorneys cannot stand in for state attorneys who are disqualified to participate in a case, absent from the county or district, or otherwise cannot perform their duties. That’s because the bill had overwhelming support from both chambers and did not stir up the legislators – almost as if they had not read the bill at all.
Why is this important? Take into consideration the enduring criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for felony securities fraud and it becomes clear legislation has laid the groundwork for serious vulnerability in the state’s judicial system. SB 341 specifies that only county attorneys, district attorneys, and assistant attorney generals would be able to replace state attorneys in typically high-profile cases. Put simply, the only eligible replacement attorneys would be those elected prosecutors who are employed through Attorney General Paxton’s agency.
First indicted in July 2015, this case has been a long-standing stalemate caused by delays in the trial. One most recent delay is the argument over payment for the special prosecutors pressing charges against Paxton.
On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the motion to reconsider a November 2018 ruling stating that a payment of six-figures fell outside the legal limits for the special prosecutors’ payment. While providing no outright reasoning for the denial, the question now remains whether the trial will be in a position to continue in light of the Legislature’s shortsighted measures.
Should the prosecutors withdraw from the case due to consistent non-payment, Sen. Huffman’s bill leaves little wiggle room for other attorneys willing to step up to the plate. These recent events beg the question: Did legislators simply overlook- or never glance at- the ramifications and context of this bill?
The Texas Legislature is tasked with providing ethical oversight and accountability for our government, and when lawmakers can’t be bothered to do their homework the consequences can be substantial. By effectively making it harder to hold Paxton accountable, the Legislature must now answer to Texans who deserve a fair and equal system.