Analysis: Crime pays, politically speaking, for Texas AGs

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a border security briefing at Texas DPS regional headquarters in Weslaco on Jan. 27, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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One of the great myths of Texas politics is that the attorney general is “the top law enforcement officer” in the state.

That bit of malarkey has been promoted for years by people who held the office and people who wanted to hold the office.

The AG is a civil lawyer who is allowed to assist local prosecutors, at their request, in some criminal cases. Most of the work involves state tax, environmental and other regulatory fights, child support, open government laws and other civil matters.

Crime? Some. Here’s the language on the AG’s own website: “Under Texas law, the county or district attorney has primary jurisdiction to prosecute most criminal offenses. The Office of the Attorney General assists local prosecutors at their request. The law also authorizes this agency to proffer assistance to local prosecutors. Most OAG prosecutions are undertaken on referrals.”

That doesn’t sound as rough and tumble as pretending to be at the top of the law enforcement pyramid, though. Politics begs for exaggeration.

The state Constitution, however, does not. That issue was addressed last month by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled 8-1 that the state Constitution leaves prosecution of election law violations to district and county attorneys, who are in the judicial branch of government, and not to the AG, who’s in the executive branch.

Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, didn’t like that answer. As first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, he encouraged his supporters to grab their phones and laptops and get after the eight judges who sided against him, and with the Texas Constitution.

“Call them out by name,” Paxton said on Lindell TV, an online outlet run by My Pillow CEO and prominent Donald Trump supporter Mike Lindell. “I mean, you can look them up. There’s eight of them that voted the wrong way. Call them, send mail, send email.”

The AG is asking the court for a do-over, and has some of the state’s top elected officials on his side. Gov. Greg Abbott, who was AG before he became governor, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are siding with Paxton and others who want the court to reconsider its opinion.

They haven’t joined Paxton in encouraging a public torches-and-pitchforks protest — the latest evidence of his variable regard for the law.

It’s odd for a top government lawyer to sic the public on one of the state’s two high courts: the Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal law and the Texas Supreme Court for civil law.

He’s ignoring a local prosecutor’s demand that he release information related to his activities in Washington, D.C., on the day of last year’s Capitol insurrection. Paxton’s office oversees open information laws; he contends he’s already done what the law requires.

Paxton, while pining for the power to prosecute election law, also busted the deadline for disclosing the names of the donors who contributed $2.8 million to his campaign last year.

Some of the (now former) top lawyers in the AG’s office accused him of using his state office to benefit a political donor, a bramble of whistleblowing allegations and repercussions still being argued in the courts.

And there’s that chronic securities fraud indictment alleging that Paxton, as a private lawyer, solicited investments without telling the potential buyers he was being compensated for doing so. That indictment, from July 2015, still hasn’t gone to trial, lingering almost as long as Paxton’s tenure as the state government’s top civil lawyer.

All of that figures into Paxton’s biggest challenge of the moment, reelection challenges from fellow Republicans: U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

This is when candidates for attorney general — including the incumbents — turn on the law enforcement hoopla. Their Twitter feeds are full of images and stories of police and of crime along the Texas-Mexico border. Bush contends “Paxton has ignored more human trafficking cases than he’s prosecuted.” Guzman, whose husband is a retired police officer, peppers her messages with “border security” and “back the blue.” Gohmert, like Paxton, wants the office so he can prosecute election law violations.

It’s not an office for crime stoppers, exactly. But that line sells during election season.