The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to hear arguments over whether the special prosecutors in the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton may charge Collin County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for their services.
State law requires that court-appointed prosecutors be paid according to the predetermined schedule used to pay the attorneys for indigent defendants. However, the local rules decided upon by the judges in Collin County included an exception for “unusual circumstances,” which was invoked in the Paxton case.
That’s led to more than $810,000 in legal bills, all payable by taxpayers, revolving around two questions:
- Should Paxton’s name have been on a state registry when he referred a client to an investment advisor in 2012?
- Is it a felony to be paid in private by an entrepreneur for introducing him to potential investors?
Last year, the Collin County Commissioners Court paid court-appointed prosecutors Brian Wice, Kent Schaffer, and Nicole DeBorde some $255,000, but balked in May after then-trial judge George Gallagher ordered the payment of another $205,000.
An appeals court agreed with the commissioners in August, voiding the order on the basis that the “unusual circumstances” exception conflicted with the law’s requirement of uniformity.
The prosecutors appealed that to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which stayed the order in September, before announcing Wednesday that it would formally consider the question.
That decision raises the prospect of a jurisdictional dispute in Texas’ unusual two-headed judiciary.
Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a district judge did not have the authority to order a commissioners court to pay a court official a certain salary.
“Instead, it can only set aside decisions or actions of the commissioners court that are illegal, unreasonable, or arbitrary,” the Supreme Court ruled.
Now the Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the Supreme Court’s counterpart for criminal matters, is poised to take up an almost identical question.
In fact, this case began as a civil matter, when real estate developer Jeffory Blackard filed a taxpayer lawsuit to challenge the legality of the prosecutors’ pay arrangement.
In that case, the appeals court asked the Collin County commissioners to take an official position on the matter, as they had the clearest standing to challenge the arrangement.
The prosecutors have threatened to quit the case if they’re not paid, although District Judge Robert Johnson has not said if he would allow them to do so.
Jon Cassidy can be reached at [email protected].