While the relocation of the trials of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on securities fraud charges could be a blow to his chances of acquittal, a political expert tells The Texas Monitor the resulting delay in the initial trial’s start date could actually bolster the Republican’s re-election odds.
Mark P. Jones, fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said he expects Paxton’s attorneys to try to further push the first trial back, a move that could be to the AG’s political gain.
“It may behoove him to delay this trial so there won’t be a verdict until after Dec. 11,” Jones said.
What’s the significance of that date? It’s the filing deadline for candidates who want to run for statewide offices in 2018.
If Paxton was found guilty before the deadline, candidates on both sides of the political aisle would likely line up to run against him in 2018, Jones said. He added that an appeal would be a near certainty with a guilty verdict and would likely last past the general election next year.
Jones said that other than the race for agricultural commissioner, there’s unlikely to be a viable statewide GOP primary battle other than potentially the 2018 attorney general’s race.
If the first trial is not complete before the filing deadline, that uncertainty could ward off some potential Paxton challengers, both Republicans and Democrats.
Judge George Gallagher, who is presiding over the case — for now, anyway — ordered Paxton’s two trials on three felony charges moved from Collin County to Harris County.
The first had initially been scheduled to begin May 1.
“Harris County was selected because the lead counsel for the state and the defense are located there,” Gallagher said in a statement Tuesday. “Harris County also has the facilities to accommodate the trial.”
Gallagher said last week that the first trial would begin Sept. 12 and end by Sept. 22, but it’s likely he soon won’t have a say in the matter. Paxton’s attorneys responded to the change of venue by asking that Gallagher be replaced by a Harris County judge.
The judge said Monday through his spokeswoman that he will remain as judge for the case, but that appears to be in question.
Paxton’s legal team cited a requirement under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that they must give permission for Gallagher to follow the case to Harris County following the venue change.
Their motion stated that Paxton didn’t agree “to allow the Honorable George Gallagher or his court staff to continue to preside over the matter in Harris County. Paxton therefore requests that the Court order its clerk to send a certified copy of its file to the Harris County District Clerk that a new judge may be assigned.”
State District Judge George Gallagher will remain on, according to a spokeswoman for the judge.
It was originally believed Gallagher would have to rule on a request Paxton’s lawyers made this month for a new judge. But the spokeswoman, Melody McDonald Lanier, said Monday that he does not and will continue presiding over the case.
The prosecution has maintained that Paxton’s allies have attempted to sway the potential jury pool of Collin County, the AG’s home base, in his favor.
Jones said the change of venue “without question” decreases Paxton’s chances of acquittal.
“Whether it went from very good to good, or bad to very bad, is in question,” he said. “You’re going from a county where he’s a favored son to one where he’s a political unknown.”
The political persuasion of the potential jury pool in Harris County, home to Houston, is practically the reverse of Collin County. A recent survey from the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas found a 54-38 split in favor of Republicans in Collin County and a 51-39 split in favor of Democrats in Harris County.
The Texas Monitor previously noted the impending change-of-venue decision raised constitutional issues given that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to a trail in the “district” in which the alleged crime took place. But the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t incorporated that into state law and federal appellate courts have ruled on both sides of the issue.
Paxton is accused of misleading investors in technology startup company Servergy in 2011 when he served in the Texas Legislature. Paxton allegedly pushed members of an ad-hoc investment club to purchase shares in the company, not revealing he made commissions on those sales and had not bought shares himself.
Photo credit: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on the House floor before the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)