Ken Paxton's lawlessness previews Trump's second term
And it's terrifying.
This free edition of PN is made possible by paid subscribers. To become one and support our work, please click the button below and sign up.
Last May, the Texas House voted 121-23 to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton. The following September, after a sustained pressure campaign by his political allies and donors, he was acquitted by the Senate of all the charges. The brush with consequences served only to embolden Paxton, who unleashed a wave of revenge investigations even as he went pedal to the metal in his culture war crusade.
Just this week, the AG sued five Texas cities for failing to lock up enough people for marijuana possession and subpoenaed a Georgia hospital for the medical records of trans kids, even as he was making the case in court that Texas has the right to enact its own border policy in contravention of the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent. And he’s still using the power of his office to thwart the corruption case which led to his impeachment in the first place.
In short, Paxton has acted like an unhinged dictator who knows that no law can bind him — a chilling preview of what might happen nationwide if Trump returns to office.
On Wednesday, Paxton sued the cities of Austin, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin, and Denton to reverse local ordinances decriminalizing possession of less than four ounces of marijuana.
“I will not stand idly by as cities run by pro-crime extremists deliberately violate Texas law and promote the use of illicit drugs that harm our communities,” he blustered in a self-congratulatory press release which characterized cannabis as “an illicit substance that psychologists have increasingly linked to psychosis and other negative consequences.”
There was, of course, no citation for that medical factoid.
As for his authority to bring the suits, Paxton cited Texas’s Public Safety Code, which bars “the governing body of a municipality, the commissioners court of a county, or a sheriff, municipal police department, municipal attorney, county attorney, district attorney, or criminal district attorney” from adopting a “policy under which the entity will not fully enforce laws relating to drugs.”
But it’s not clear whether that statute would apply here where ordinances were enacted by the citizens themselves who voted in favor of them by wide margins in 2022.
Nevertheless, the press release praised the AG for “continu[ing] to seek accountability for the rogue district attorneys whose abuse of prosecutorial discretion has contributed to a deadly national crimewave.”
There was no citation for that factoid either, possibly because it’s not true. In reality, crime is down sharply nationwide. But if there’s no real danger, then there’s no need for the AG to come bigfooting in and contravene the expressed wishes of millions of Texas citizens. So put down that gummy bear, you delinquent!
Republicans want the government out of their business, except when the government is harassing trans kids and their parents. In that case, it’s full speed ahead. And since Paxton’s political base is currently being whipped into a frenzy of hate against LGBTQ+ Americans, and because he has no qualms about acts of extreme brutality in service of his own aggrandizement, Paxton has been using his office to harass trans kids.
In Texas, Paxton already threatened to charge parents with child abuse who provide gender-affirming care to their children. And last November his office’s consumer protection division subpoenaed Seattle Children’s Hospital for the medical records of any minor Texas patient, under the bizarre theory that such medical care might constitute a violation of Texas’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The hospital told Paxton to pound sand, citing Washington’s “Shield Law,” which bars courts from enforcing out-of-state subpoenas related to abortion and gender-affirming care from states which ban them.
A note from Aaron: Working with brilliant contributors like Liz requires resources. To support our work, hit the subscribe button and become a paid subscriber.
But Paxton is undeterred. He’s currently seeking medical records of trans kids from Texas who may have accessed telehealth services from QueerMed, a provider in Georgia. Dr. Izzy Lowell, who runs QueerMed, told the Houston Chronicle that her center was forced to cut off access to medical care for kids in Texas after the state banned gender affirming care for minors in June of last year. But Paxton is reportedly seeking medical records for minor patients going back to January 2022, when it was still legal. (QueerMed’s Decatur clinic was recently destroyed by arson.)
Seattle Children’s Hospital sued to block the subpoena, but QueerMed has been less public about its response. It’s clear that Paxton, who casts himself as defending children from predatory doctors intent on “chopping off boys’ and girls’ private parts,” is going to keep targeting trans kids in the name of protecting them.
Persecuting hated minorities who poison the blood of the nation sounds just like …
And it’s also right out of the dictator’s playbook.
Get out of jail free
But Paxton’s most aggressive instinct has always been for self preservation. He’s successfully fended off a securities fraud indictment since 2015 by tying it up in the courts as he demands a change of venue and challenges the prosecutor’s compensation. (That case is set to go to trial in April.) And after the state bar launched an investigation of him for filing a preposterous case seeking to throw out tens of millions of swing state votes, Paxton turned around and used his office to investigate the state bar.
Republicans in the state were willing to turn a blind eye to an absolute orgy of corruption in the AG’s office until it washed up on their doorstep in the form of a whistleblower complaint filed by members of Paxton’s staff. His own deputies found themselves summarily fired after objecting to use of their office to benefit a real estate developer named Nate Paul who donated to Paxton, renovated his house gratis, and even gave Paxton’s girlfriend a job so she could be near the married politician in Austin.
When they sued, Paxton negotiated a $3.3 million settlement from the public fisc which required approval from Texas House lawmakers. Instead, the House did a real investigation and decided that they’d take the opportunity to rid themselves of this guy once and for all. The effort foundered in the Senate after Paxton’s billionaire backers threatened retribution for anyone who crossed him.
But surviving impeachment didn’t kick loose the $3.3 million which would have ended the lawsuit, and that put Paxton in a tight spot. Because in the meantime Nate Paul got himself federally indicted, giving himself a powerful incentive to help the feds with an investigation of Paxton which has been underway since 2020. The last thing on earth Ken Paxton wants to do is get deposed in that whistleblower suit and hand the FBI deposition transcripts they can use against him. So instead he devised a stratagem to default in the lawsuit, ideally without admitting his guilt or being deposed, and then tell the plaintiffs to go collect from the legislature if they can.
In a filing last month, Paxton’s lawyers wrote that the AG’s office “elects not to dispute the Plaintiffs’ lawsuit as to any issue and consents to the entry of judgment; and, further, that it shall leave to the Legislature the decision whether and when to fund such judgment, whether in whole or in part, consistent with the Legislature’s prerogative to exercise the State’s sovereign immunity from suit and expend taxpayer dollars.”
He claimed that he was doing so to protect public resources “which are more appropriately dedicated to the business of the State of Texas and not the personal, political agenda of four rogue, former employees.” He did not add that this gambit would obviate the need for him to have to testify in deposition or at trial about things which might make things very uncomfortable for him with the FBI.
The plaintiffs countered that the issue of damages hinged on Paxton’s conduct, and so they’d need to depose him even if he tapped out of the suit, and last week the trial judge in Travis County agreed, ordering Paxton to go under oath by February 1. But on January 30, a higher power intervened.
Hours later, all-Republican Supreme Court of Texas stayed the deposition order and instructed the parties to brief the issue by February 29.
For Ken’s friends, everything! For Ken’s enemies, the law.
An unsubtle analogy
Ken Paxton is a disaster for the people of Texas, particularly LGBTQ children and their families. But he’s also a terrifying Ghost of Christmas Future for the country as a whole if decent Americans don’t get out and vote in November.
The parallels to Donald Trump are chilling.
Like Paxton, Trump engaged in flagrant corruption and self-dealing, habituating his supporters to tune out factual reports of his crimes. Like Paxton, Trump attacks minorities and warns of a nonexistent existential threat, casting himself as the solution and savior for beleaguered real Americans. Like Paxton, Trump forced his legislative allies to confront his crimes — in this case by dispatching his followers to sack Congress in a desperate effort to hold onto power.
And like Paxton, Trump’s Republican allies folded under pressure. The GOP could have removed this existential threat forever if just a few more of them had the courage to vote for impeachment. Instead he survived to subsume the entire Republican Party, emerging stronger than ever with the GOP base. He’s even trying to outrun criminal investigations by burying the evidence.
But unlike Paxton, Trump will not coast to electoral victory in November on the strength of Republican votes alone. We have a chance to stop this nightmare before Trump gets back into power and launches his promised assault on civil society and weaponizes the federal government to exact revenge on his enemies.
God bless us everyone, and … VOTE.
That’s it for this week
If you appreciate this post and aren’t already a subscriber, please support what we do by signing up. Just click the button below. Paid subscribers make this work possible.
We’ll be back with more Monday. Until then, have a great weekend.