Impeachment of the Attorney General Under The Texas Constitution

On Thursday, a committee of the Texas House of Representatives recommended twenty articles of impeachment against Attorney General Ken Paxton. We are in somewhat uncharted waters. It seems there have been only two impeachments in Texas history. In 1917, a governor was impeached, but resigned before the Senate convicted him. And in 1975-76, a district judge was convicted, removed, and disqualified. In this post, I will provide a high-level overview of the impeachment process in Texas, with a focus on the particular issues that may arise in the Paxton case.

Article 15 of the Texas Constitution governs the impeachment process. Section 1 states that the House of Representatives has the “power of impeachment.” Presumably, a simple majority is enough to impeach, but that threshold is not clearly spelled out. Sections 2 and 3 provide that the impeachment shall be tried by the Senate, and 2/3 of the Senators “present” are required to impeach. (The same threshold is used in the federal Constitution). Section 4 includes a provision that mirrors the Impeachment Disqualification Clause in the federal Constitution: “Judgement in cases of impeachment shall extend only to removal from office, and disqualification from holding any office of honor, trust or profit under this State.” However, Section 5 provides a unique wrinkle: after an article of impeachment is “preferred” to the Senate, the impeached officer “shall be suspended from the exercise of the duties of their office, during the pendency of such impeachment.” In other words, an impeached official is temporarily removed from office. And the Governor may make a “provisional appointment.” (Governor Abbott could pick someone from Paxton’s staff, or one of the Republicans who challenged Paxton in last year’s primary, or a “caretaker” to fill the gap for a short time).

Section 7 seems to provide the legislature some additional authority with regard to impeachment. It provide, “The Legislature shall provide by law for the trial and removal from office of all officers of this State, the modes for which have not been provided in this Constitution.” In the federal system, Congress has adopted various rules governing impeachment. For example, evidence can be heard by a Senate committee, rather than by the full Senate. Judge Walter Nixon challenged this delegation of authority as being inconsistent with the federal Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to resolve that issue on justiciability grounds, but did leave open the possibility that some deviations from the process spelled out in the Constitution could be justiciable. (Chief Justice Rehnquist flagged this issue during oral argument.) Section 7 seems to expressly delegate the power to the legislature to establish certain rules by law. And “by law,” as a general matter, means through actual legislation, rather than by single-house resolution.

Those laws appear in Chapter 665 of the Government Code. At quick glance, Article 15 does not provide a standard for impeachment, such as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section 665.062 lists specific causes for removal “by address,” including “willful neglect of duty,” “incompetency,” and “breach of trust.” But, pursuant to Section 665.051, the Attorney General is not subject to removal “by address.” So these grounds are not directly relevant for Paxton.

Subchapter D of Chapter 665 includes one provision: Section 665.081. It provides, in part: “An officer in this state may not be removed from office for an act the officer may have committed before the officer’s election to office.” Many of the allegations against Paxton occurred before Paxton was elected to a third term in office in November 2022. And Paxton’s lawyer has cited Section 665.081 as a possible defense. He contends that the voters re-elected Paxton, with full knowledge of the allegations against him.

Overturning elections begins behind closed doors.

— Attorney General Ken Paxton (@KenPaxtonTX) May 25, 2023

Section 665.081 can be read in two different ways. First, an officer cannot be removed for an act he committed before being elected to his current term in office. Second, an officer cannot be removed for an act he committed before being elected to his first term of his current position. Under the first reading, Paxton could not be removed for conduct that occurred before November 2022. Under the second reading, Paxton could not be removed for conduct that occurred before November 2014, when he was elected to his first term.

The Texas courts have recognized something called the “forgiveness doctrine.” The Texas Supreme Court described it this way:

Neither may removal [of judges] be predicated upon acts antedating election, not in themselves disqualifying under the Constitution and laws of this State, when such acts were a matter of public record or otherwise known to the electors and were sanctioned and approved or forgiven by them at the election. This holding is in harmony with the public policy declared by the Legislature with respect to other public officials. Article 5986, R.C.S. [An older version of Section 665.081] .

But this doctrine has limits:

We hold that the willful and persistent acts of misconduct committed by Judge Carrillo prior to his last election were such as to cast just as much public discredit upon the judiciary as if they had been committed after the election; and they were not in any manner absolved by his election.

The Texas Supreme Court opined on this standard in a disciplinary proceeding of the lone impeached district judge:

In Brown, supra, we recognized that the sound rationale for this doctrine is that the public, as the ultimate judge and jury in a democratic society, can choose to forgive the misconduct of an elected official if the public knows about such misconduct prior to the election. If, on the other hand, the misconduct is unknown to the public prior to the election and is of such willful nature as to cast public discredit upon the judiciary, it cannot be said that the judge was forgiven by his election or re-election.

And a later decision by the Court of Appeals applied this doctrine:

There is language in Brown, Bates and Carrillo which completely disposes of any doubt over the applicability of the “forgiveness” doctrine to article 5986. According to Brown and Carrillo, it was essentially an attempt by the Supreme Court in Laughlin to articulate the “spirit” of article 5986, which prompted the court to use that language which has come to stand for the “forgiveness” doctrine. According to Bates, the phrases “prior term” and “forgiveness” mean essentially the same thing. Thus, it is an unavoidable conclusion that the “forgiveness” doctrine merely states the rationale behind article 5986 and the “prior term” rule.

Should the forgiveness doctrine apply to an official who is re-elected? The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed this issue, indirectly, in Williams v. State, 150 S.W.2d 803 (1941):

Appellant’s next contention is that if the evidence shows that he sold the bonds and converted the money to his own use and benefit prior to his re-election as County Attorney in 1936, that, therefore, he cannot be prosecuted for the offense so charged, because Article 5986 of the Revised Civil Statutes, relieves of the prosecution. The article referred to reads as follows: “No officer shall be prosecuted or removed from office for any act he may have committed prior to his election to office.”

To hold that a person running for office might commit murder, burglary, theft, robbery, rape or any of those offenses and thereafter be elected to office would be relieved from punishment is the most monstrous proposition that the writer of this opinion has ever heard advanced in justification of any of such offenses. To so hold would be contrary, not only to every law on the subject, but also to public policy. We think that the Legislature, in the enactment of said law, meant that the same should apply to any offense committed relating to misfeasance of office and certainly not to make him immune to punishment for any other offense. We therefore overrule appellant’s contention.

This case concerned a criminal prosecution, though it would seem to suggest that the Forgiveness Doctrine would not immunize an official from removal based on conduct prior to re-election. However, none of these cases arose in the direct context of an impeachment. (Westlaw lists about two dozen references in the “Notes of Decision” under the Statute.) Ultimately, the Senate, when sitting as a court of impeachment, would have to resolve this question of law.

Of course, Paxton may seek some sort of judicial intervention. As a general matter, the Texas courts have far more permissive rules concerning standing and justiciability. And, as I noted earlier, Walter Nixon v. United States did leave open the possibility that certain issues concerning impeachment may be justiciable. For example, what would happen if someone other than the Chief Justice presided over a presidential impeachment? The construction of this statute, in the government code, may provide a justiciable question–especially since the Texas Supreme Court has already interpreted the forgiveness doctrine.

My thoughts here are based on somewhat abbreviated research, in an area where there is little precedent. If I missed something, please email me, and I would be happy to post an update.

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