AG Ken Paxton could join a very small class of Texas officials who have been impeached
In a historic move for the state, a Texas House committee recommended articles of impeachment against Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday.
While Paxton’s fate remains uncertain, the rare impeachments of the past might provide some insight for what lies ahead.
Only two other Texas officials have been impeached, and it isn’t easy to kick someone out of office.
First, the Texas House must vote on whether to impeach. In Texas, if a majority of the House votes to impeach, the official is automatically suspended (federally, the person would remain in office until they are convicted in a trial in the Senate).
After that, the official would go on trial in the state Senate, where a two-thirds majority would be needed for the impeachment to be complete.
Texas has only impeached two elected government officials in the state’s history: a district judge and, most notably, a governor, more than 100 years ago.
“The precedent there is pretty slim because it has historically been a very rare occasion,” Dr. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center, said.
Historical impeachment… and the shenanigans that followed
The last impeachment in Texas happened in 1976, when District Judge O.P. Carrillo was charged with income tax evasion and removed from his position.
The first official to ever be impeached was Gov. James Ferguson in 1917, for the misappropriation of funds.
He was banned from ever running for office in Texas, but that didn’t stop Ferguson’s political career. He later ran for president, albeit unsuccessfully. After that, he set his sights on the governor’s mansion once again. But he had to get creative.
While “Pa” Ferguson wasn’t allowed to run for governor, that didn’t mean his wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, couldn’t throw her hat in the ring.
“Pa” ran his wife’s campaign, and the Fergusons took back the governor’s mansion in 1924. She’d later win a second gubernatorial election in 1932.
Miriam was Texas’ first woman governor. Another woman wouldn’t hold the office until Gov. Ann Richards won her seat in 1991. Texas hasn’t had a female governor since.
There are some huge differences between the historic cases and Paxton’s situation, Carleton said.
Paxton was indicted just a year after he came into office but has been reelected twice since then, in 2018 and in 2022.
“Judge Carrillo and James Ferguson, neither one of them were elected to office under indictment,” Carleton said.
Making things a bit more complicated, Paxton is married to McKinney Republican Senator Angela Paxton (also known as the pistol-packin’-Momma whose husband sued Obama).
“If he was to get impeached, then it goes to the Senate, and his wife is one of the jurors,” Carleton said.
Since there have only been two impeachments and neither have involved someone with a spouse in the legislature, there is no precedent for what Sen. Paxton would be asked to do in this situation.
“I don't think there's any authority on anybody's part to make her recuse herself,” Carleton said.
How did we get here?
Texas’s attorney generals are independently elected, not appointed like in some other states. That means they don’t have to be approved by the legislature, Carleton said.
“They're not beholden for their office to the state legislature or the governor,” he said.
That can be traced back to when the Texas Constitution was written.
“Our constitution of 1876 is a product of veterans of the Confederacy getting control of the state government and rewriting the constitution to really make the state government as weak as possible,” Carleton said.
That mindset shapes the way Texans govern to this day. For example, the legislature meets every two years instead of annually. The “small government is the best government” mentality also makes it hard to kick someone out of office.
“The state of Texas has a very high bar that you have to get over to get impeached as a state official,” Carleton said.
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