AUSTIN, Texas — Texas senators are entering new territory as they prepare to be jurors in the impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton. Many have worked with Paxton for years. He was formerly in the Texas House and Senate.
“People already have lines of communication open. They already have friends and enemies. So it’s a hard process to run in a convincing kind of way,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
Money and relationships are at the center of Paxton’s trial. Some experts say there are some ethical differences and concerns about what’s happening in the impeachment trial and what typically happens in a normal trial.
“It’s an impeachment trial with an attorney general whose wife is also in the Senate where the trial is being conducted. There’s no way it’s not going to be weird,” said political lawyer Andrew Cates.
Lawmakers and experts have been clear that the impeachment trial is political. It’s a legislative process, not a judicial one, which is why some things are looking different from a normal trial. Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, will be in the room but won’t have much of a role in the process.
What else isn’t judicially normal is that senators with close ties to Paxton will serve as jurors.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is allowed to vote but is mentioned in transcripts released by the impeachment lawyers. He was allegedly involved in making a request on behalf of Paxton to help Nate Paul, the real estate developer who’s at the center of the impeachment trial. Paul was recently indicted in federal court for financial crimes.
“I don’t think we have enough information yet to know whether or not there was anything improper with how Senator Hughes interacted with the AG on this,” Cates said. “If that does come out, then I think that we do have a really big question of whether or not he should be allowed to take a vote.”
Also, unlike the legislative session, lawmakers can get campaign donations right now.
“The fact that money is sloshing around this process is a concern as well,” Jillson said.
Earlier this summer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick got $3 million from a pro-Paxton political action committee (PAC). As the head of the Senate, Patrick will act as the judge in the impeachment trial, but the PAC says this wasn’t an attempt to influence him in this role.
“It’s just one of those curiosities of Texas politics: unlimited campaign contributions that are being made in proximity to a critical political decision,” Jillson said. “And to expect people not to notice that and not to draw their own conclusions, some of which will be negative, is expecting too much. I think people will worry about that.”
The intertwining relationships between Paxton, the senators and the witnesses will only become more clear if the trial continues beyond day one, which is Sept. 5. That’s when senators will vote on whether to throw out the impeachment articles. But if the trial goes on, Jillson says “it’ll only get messier.”
“And as it gets messier,” he continued, “his friends will have more and more difficulty sticking with him.”