Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been in office since 2015, and since 2015 he has been one of the most destructive forces in American law. He’s used his office as a Republican wish-fulfillment machine, trying to win through conservative courts the policies that Republicans cannot win at the ballot box. It was Paxton who organized a red-state challenge to the Affordable Care Act in 2018, trying to get Obamacare declared unconstitutional (he lost). Paxton also led the 2018 challenge to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and brought it all the way to the Supreme Court (he lost). And he challenged Obama’s Clean Power Plan in 2017 (he won). During the Trump administration, he turned his attention toward reproductive rights, and he’s been at the forefront of trying to implement Texas’s bounty-hunter law, which punishes anyone who tries to help pregnant people in Texas receive an abortion. So far, during the Biden administration, he’s sued the administration more than 50 times, mainly over Biden’s immigration policies and student debt-relief programs. For Paxton, there is simply no difference between the law and his conservative political agenda.
Paxton has also been one of the most corrupt public officials in America in recent years. He has been under indictment since 2015 for securities fraud. But he has managed to use his status as attorney general, and a number of procedural tricks, to evade facing trial on those charges. We’re talking about a man who once hopped into a getaway truck, driven by his wife, to avoid a subpoena compelling him to testify in an abortion case. His wife, by the way, is a state senator.
All of this is apparently fine with a majority of Texas voters (the same people who have infected this country with Ted Cruz). They elected Paxton to a third term as AG back in 2022, just two years after he came out as an election denier and, in one of the dumbest lawsuits I’ve ever seen, tried to get the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 presidential election .
Given Paxton’s apparent popularity with Texas voters, I was surprised to see that the Republican-controlled Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to impeach him last week and put him on leave from his duties pending trial in the Texas Senate. The votes were 121-23. You don’t often see Republicans turn on one of their own like this.
The credit for this shocking turn of law before party has to go to Paxton’s staff. His own employees sounded the alarm on the misdeeds that led to his impeachment.
The Texas House impeached Paxton on 20 charges of bribery, obstruction of justice, and abuse of public trust. Many of those charges involving Paxton’s favor were accused of performing on behalf of one of his wealthy donors, a man named Nate Paul. Paul is being investigated by the FBI for real estate fraud, so Paxton decides to green-light a state investigation of the FBI’s actions, going so far as to hire his own outside attorney, over the objections of his staff. The most egregious allegation, to me, involves a Covid-related opinion. Paxton apparently forced his staff to write for Paul’s benefit. Paxton’s staff claim that he asked them to determine if any of the various Covid-19 legal moratoriums could be invoked to delay foreclosure proceedings. He was told that this would not work. So Paxton allegedly ordered them to rewrite the opinion and argued that foreclosure sales were prevented by Covid-19 restrictions. His staff couldn’t make sense of Paxton’s directive—until they realized that Paul had a number of properties facing foreclosure proceedings.
Members of Paxton’s team brought up these concerns with regulators, and were subsequently fired by Paxton. Those staffers then brought a whistleblower lawsuit and won a $3.3 million settlement from Paxton. Paxton (in an act that must be in the running for the Guinness Book of World Records for hubris) then asked the Texas Legislature to pay the $3.3 million he owed these people. That triggered the House investigation into the charges, which is what directly led to his impeachment last week.
We members of the public tend to treat political staffers as nameless, faceless functionaries who exist only to serve their famous bosses. We don’t expect them to exercise their own moral judgment, and we often give them a pass when they silently and dutifully serve even the most evil and corrupt public officials. Sure, the president’s staffers often become famous, but most people cannot name a single person who works for Clarence Thomas or Josh Hawley or Ron DeSantis, and when those staffers pop up later in some other government role or run for office in their own right, most people don’t hold their prior service against them. We act like political staff cannot be held responsible for the decisions of their bosses.
In reality, the staff is complicit in the policies and decisions of the officeholders they serve, and they know what’s really going on long before the public or ProPublica do. And political staffers, collectively, have a whole lot of power. They are the people who have the option to speak truth to power—or to become cheerleaders for the worst instincts of their bosses.
Instead of being complicit in Paxton’s apparent corruption and abuse of power or silent witnesses to it, Paxton’s staff chose to speak out. That’s crucial. A person like Paxton cannot exist without the tacit consent and professional assistance of many other people. And, too often, those people justify looking the other way either because of their personal careerist goals, or their supposed dedication to the larger political agenda of the people they work for.
To put it another way: We’re lucky that the people who worked for Paxton are not like the people who worked for California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Her failing health prevents Feinstein from doing her job as a leader in a representative democracy. She is being propped up, literally, by her staff. Seeing her wheeled around like this, appearing barely cognizant of where she is or what she’s being asked to do, is tragic in a way that borders on farce.
For wildly different reasons, both Paxton and Feinstein are unfit for their elected offices. Paxton is unfit because he’s a corrupt-o-fascist who couldn’t even find a benefactor wealthy enough to own a superyacht. Feinstein is unfit because she’s not compos mentis—which I believe is Latin for “let’s just make sure she’s comfortable”—and has been unable to participate in basic Senate business for several months. To be clear, there’s no moral equivalency here: Feinstein is a dedicated public servant who got very old and very incapacitated; Paxton is a power-hungry repeat bad actor who got caught. But operationally, neither person should have the jobs that they do. Paxton’s staff knew it, and I promise you Feinstein’s staff knows it too.
By propping Feinstein up like this, her staff is putting their own agenda ahead of the best interests of California voters who deserve to have a senator who can vote and advocate and make crucial decisions on their behalf. We can assume that Feinstein’s staff agreed with her votes (since they appeared to be the ones functionally doing the voting), just as we can assume that Paxton’s staff agreed with his horrible policies and habit of manipulating the law for conservative ends. But at least some people on Paxton’s staff drew the line at self-dealing. Some of them determined that the people of Texas deserved an attorney general who wasn’t in it for himself alone. Some of them were willing to risk their precious jobs, and in fact lost those jobs, in order to tell the truth about what was happening in their office.
Does anybody working for Feinstein have that same commitment to truth? Who will be the “whistleblower” who goes public and says that Feinstein cannot do the job anymore and needs to be replaced—or is that the kind of thing they’re all saving for the books they will write after the fact? Who among them is willing to put the people of California first, and their own careers on Capitol Hill second? It hurts my soul to write this, but the group of people who showed up to work for the sniveling, corrupt Republican attorney general of Texas showed more respect for the norms of democratic self-government than the people who showed up to work for the senior Democratic senator from California.
The bottom line is that Ken Paxton would not have been impeached but for the willingness of people who worked for him to go public with the truth. Dianne Feinstein will not be replaced until the people who work for her are willing to do the same thing.