Texas senators’ political careers on the line in impeachment trial – The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial features a judge, jury, prosecution and defense, just like a criminal or civil court proceeding.

In an American court, trial lawyers can strike or accept jurors from a pool of the defendant’s peers. For this impeachment, they are stuck with the jury they have.

And Texas senators are not your average jurors. They bring inherent political bias and jury tampering is allowed.

This week, for example, Republican senators were the focus of a lobbying campaign that included hand-delivered letters and frequent calls to their offices — in some cases to personal cell phones.

The Paxton impeachment trial is catered to swaying the conservative senators whose decisions will determine whether he is acquitted and reinstated as attorney general or convicted and removed from office.

While evidence is critical, just as important to lawyers on both sides is the ability to connect on a political and ideological level with GOP jurors.

Such appeals were on display during the trial’s first week.

A defense lawyer made pointed references to the conservative ideology of a star witness, making sure GOP jurors knew he wasn’t a RINO, which means Republican in name only. The Paxton defense team lashed out at the media and questioned the House investigation that led to the impeachment, leaning in on how the Senate is often at odds with House counterparts and how Republican leaders routinely criticize the press.

Such rhetoric would not be the focus of most court trials.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. It’s just political,” said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “What you’re doing is essentially undoing a constitutional process that puts someone like Paxton into office.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (center) sits with his lawyers Tony Buzbee (left) and Dan Cogdell (right) at the beginning of the first day of Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate chambers at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. The Texas House, including a majority of its GOP members, voted to impeach Paxton for alleged corruption in May.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Other than the third-term GOP attorney general, no other elected officials are under as much pressure as the Republican senators. As jurors, they not only face the wrath of potentially angry voters but the prospect of being on the wrong side of history.

“The ramifications of any state senator sitting in the trial right now is high because as a normal juror, you would be able to go home and live your daily lives,” said Matthew Langston, a Republican consultant who has directed the campaigns of those considered anti-establishment candidates. “They have to go and face the electorate after whatever vote they take.”

The looming question is how their decisions will impact their political careers long term, Langston continued.

“For them, it will probably be the most important, most impactful vote that they will ever take as senators,” he added.

Conservative radio talk show host Mark Davis has had many of the impeachment players on his show over the years. He acknowledged that “every Republican senator is going to have a balancing act.”

“These are not jurors like in a criminal trial, where you are sworn to uphold an oath to be devoted to the facts and the law,” he said. “The senators have the right to vote based on what they hear in evidence or based on what their constituents want.”

Another way impeachment trials differ from criminal or civil court counterparts is the standard needed to remove Paxton from office. Lawyers don’t have to prove the attorney general is guilty of bribery or other misconduct laid out in the allegations. They must prove he’s unfit for office.

The prosecution promised the evidence against Paxton will leave no doubt he is guilty of the 20 articles of impeachment referred by the Texas House in May. That House vote was driven by Republican representatives, an overwhelming majority of whom joined with Democrats to impeach Paxton.

Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction City and lead impeachment manager, explained to senators on the opening day that “voters did not and do not know the whole truth.”

In January, Paxton asked lawmakers to use taxpayer money to pay a $3.3 million settlement with whistleblowers who sued him in court. That led to a House investigation and the findings led to the overwhelming impeachment vote.

“Mr. Paxton has been entrusted with great power. Unfortunately, rather than rise to the occasion, he’s revealed his true character,” Murr said, adding “the overwhelming evidence will show he is not fit to be the Attorney General for the state of Texas.”

Andrew Murr, R-Junction, the head of the House impeachment managers, speaks to House attorneys Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin on the Senate floor during the second day of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Paxton pleaded not guilty Tuesday to numerous articles of impeachment.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Murr left the senators with a quote from Sam Houston, the first president of Texas, in 1836.

“Do right and rise to the consequences,” Houston told Texans.

The political nature of the trial was evident when the first witness took the stand.

Rusty Hardin, one of the prosecutors, was careful to cast Jeff Mateer, the former second-in-command under Paxton who became a whistleblower, as a legitimate conservative.

“Are you a RINO?” Hardin asked Mateer.

Mateer said he is an “evangelical Christian” who had been involved in GOP groups since college.

“I’m certainly far from right of center,” he said.

Witness Jeff Mateer, former First Assistant Attorney General of Texas, is cross examined by defense lawyer Tony Buzbee (not pictured) during the second day of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Paxton pleaded not guilty Tuesday to numerous articles of impeachment.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Hardin asked: “Have you heard the suggestion that this impeachment is really the product of RINOs, liberals, Democrats, people that are opposed to the true conservative views?”

Mateer replied: “That doesn’t describe the men and women that I worked with on the eighth floor of the office of the attorney general.”

Tony Buzbee, one of Paxton’s main defense lawyers, tried bonding with Republican senators over key conservative themes: distrust of the media and differences with the Texas House.

“Despite the social media frenzy, the misinformed commentators, the reporters with an agenda, at the end of this, you will come to know what I know,” Buzbee said during opening statements. “Despite all of us being told that the evidence in this matter is 10 times worse than the public knows, it is instead 100 times less.”

Paxton’s defense team stressed the legal standard of “reasonable doubt,” appealing to Republican senators who are Paxton allies or hard-right conservatives looking for a reason to acquit him.

Buzbee sought to provide reasonable doubt by trying to unravel the testimony of Mateer, who was among eight former employees who accused the attorney general of serious crimes and reported him to the FBI.

He grilled Mateer on a text message of support he received from Richard Trabulsi Jr., the co-founder and president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. In 2022, that group backed former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman over Paxton in the GOP primary for attorney general.

Buzbee pointed out that Trabulsi sent Mateer a message of support after he reported Paxton to the FBI and resigned.

“He sent you a text, didn’t he?” Buzbee asked.

“He sent me a text after I resigned,” Mateer said.

“A text of support?” Buzbee asked.

“I got many texts of support,” Mateer said. “He was one of them.”

Buzbee also criticized Mateer for meeting with senior staffers at the governor’s office after his FBI meeting.

“That’s what you were up to. That’s the reason you went to the governor’s office. That’s the reason you were talking to [Texans for Lawsuit Reform],” Buzbee said. “You were staging a coup, weren’t you?”

“Absolutely not,” Mateer replied.

A spokesperson for Abbott denied the governor or his office was involved in a Paxton coup attempt.

Defense lawyer Tony Buzbee walks back to the podium as he cross examines witness Jeff Mateer, former First Assistant Attorney General of Texas, during the second day of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Paxton pleaded not guilty Tuesday to numerous articles of impeachment.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

The Senate and House are often at odds over legislative issues, so it’s not terribly uncommon to see them on different sides of this impeachment trial.

Most recently that included how to give Texans an $18 billion tax cut and whether to implement a voucher-like plan that allows public dollars to be used for private schools.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer and judge in the impeachment trial, went months without meeting with House Speaker Dade Phelan.

Patrick made it clear the Senate did not ask for the impeachment trial but senators would perform their duties under the state’s Constitution.

If all of the Senate’s 12 Democrats are against Paxton, it would take nine GOP votes to convict and remove the suspended attorney general from office.

That’s a steep hill to climb, given most senators share Paxton’s political ideology and are wary of sparking anger with the hard-right base of the Republican Party.

They are not impartial jurors, a fact defense lawyers are trying to exploit.

“Everyone comes to the table with preconceived notions and with implicit biases,” Gaddie said.

Senators are being pressured by party activists, most aggressively by supporters of Paxton.

Former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, promised political retribution against anyone who supported the impeachment of Paxton or his potential removal from office.

Stickland, who runs the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, used social media this week to ramp up pressure on GOP senators.

“If YOU do not call Texas Senators & tell them you support our conservative AG…, then you aren’t doing your part,” Stickland wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Light up their phone lines. Let them know we will NOT allow them to pull off this political hitjob (sic) by the RINO establishment.”

Though only a small contingent of Paxton supporters were in Austin for the trial, they delivered letters to senators’ offices and continued a telephone campaign.

The outreach to senators about the trial from constituents has bothered some of the jurors. On Thursday, Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, asked his constituents to let up on the calls and emails about the trial.

“I can not comment or engage in any discussion as I am in the position of a juror,” he wrote in a letter distributed on social media.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick points to the portrait of Stephen F. Austin that hangs over the dais during the third day of Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Senate chamber at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. Paxton pleaded not guilty Tuesday to numerous articles of impeachment.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

There’s a reason for the strong lobby campaign.

Fran Rhodes, a Fort Worth resident and president of the ultra-conservative True Texas Project, said she is concerned Paxton’s removal from office is a possibility.

“I’m very worried because if they get away with doing this to Ken Paxton, they will try it with other political opponents,” Rhodes said on the opening day of the trial.

Langston, the political consultant, noted no juror in a criminal or civil court case would have to face such scrutiny.

“They would just have to deal with their own conscience,” he said. “Here they have the deal with the conscience of the Texas electorate.”

Langston said the senators already have an idea on how they feel about the evidence.

“The lawyers are going to do their song and dance, but the senators have gone through the evidence with a fine-tooth comb.”

Davis said GOP senators who have already decided to acquit Paxton are probably sleeping better than those on the fence.

On Tuesday, six Republican senators consistently voted to dismiss the case and impeachment articles before the trial moved forward. In the votes to toss individual articles of impeachment, as many as four additional Republicans joined that group.

The closest vote on a single motion to dismiss was 10-20. Seven Republicans joined with 12 Democrats to vote against every motion to dismiss. The overwhelming vote to allow the trial to move forward signaled GOP senators could be swayed by the evidence to convict Paxton.

Langston said predicting the outcome of the trial is difficult.

“If anybody claims that they know, they’re lying to you,” he said.

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