Paxton critics pile on, calling impeachment trial rigged

House Speaker Dade Phelan wrote an op-ed for his hometown newspaper saying the 'fix was in from the start,' while other Republican officials are calling for Phelan’s resignation.

click to enlarge The state Capitol early in the morning of Sept. 6, 2023, the third day of the impeachment trial in Austin. - Texas Tribune / Eli Hartman
Texas Tribune / Eli Hartman
The state Capitol early in the morning of Sept. 6, 2023, the third day of the impeachment trial in Austin.
It has been almost a week since the Texas Senate voted to acquit Attorney General Ken Paxton in his impeachment trial — and the recriminations are still flying among Republicans.

Critics of the verdict, including House Speaker Dade Phelan, are continuing to accuse Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of rigging the trial, while Patrick is fiercely pushing back.

“For the armchair legal strategists’ opinion on what should have been done differently, I’d remind them there is nothing else that could have been done — the fix was in from the start,” Phelan said in an op-ed he wrote for his hometown newspaper published Friday afternoon.

Patrick responded to the op-ed in a lengthy tweet, saying Phelan's belief "is disgusting and proves he is unworthy of his leadership position."

Patrick has repeatedly denied accusations of being biased as the trial judge and went on a tirade earlier Friday against a Democratic state senator who criticized his role. With Patrick under fire on multiple fronts, some GOP senators are circulating a statement insisting that he had no influence over the jury deliberations.

Paxton, for his part, has returned to work while vowing political payback, and his allies are proving ready to assist him. The State Republican Executive Committee is set to vote on a resolution Saturday calling for Phelan’s resignation.

The Senate voted six days ago to acquit Paxton on all 16 impeachment articles in the trial that accused him of bribery and misuse of his office. Patrick ended the proceedings with a fiery speech that criticized the way the House members handled impeaching Paxton in the first place. The outcome escalated an already budding civil war in the Texas GOP.

Phelan quickly criticized Patrick as showing he had been biased all along, and rumors began spreading that Patrick had meddled in jury deliberations, especially after a Wall Street Journal editorial claimed Patrick “lobbied” senators. He has repeatedly denied that.

State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a member of the jury along with 29 other senators, has also emerged as a vocal critic of how Patrick handled his role as presiding officer of the trial. While Eckhardt is a Democrat, Patrick rules the chamber with an iron first and it is unusual for even the minority party to strongly criticize him.

Eckhardt submitted a statement for the court record that warned future senators about putting their faith in a presiding officer like Patrick.

"I recommend that, like almost every other impeachment trial in U.S. history, any future Impeachment tribunal select an experienced jurist with a strong reputation for neutrality to preside,” Eckhardt wrote.

She said Patrick compromised his neutrality by taking $3 million from a pro-Paxton group in June and delivering “statements of extreme bias from the bench immediately after the verdict was returned.” She also took issue with what she described as “his inconsistent and often legally indefensible rulings on motions and objection.”

Patrick issued a long statement Friday that called Eckhardt “flat out wrong” and accused her of “obliviousness.” He especially objected to her suggestion in her statement that he made the determination to keep Laura Olson, a key House witness, from testifying. Olson is the woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an extramarital affair. Patrick said he never ruled on whether she could testify and it was the two sides who agreed to deem her “present but unavailable to testify.”

Eckhardt tweeted that she stood by her statement.

Senators had the opportunity to submit such statements for the records within 72 hours of the verdict. But nearly a week after the trial ended, the Senate still has not published the journal where all those statements are supposed to be compiled. Eckhardt’s office chose to release her statement on its own.

With Patrick taking fire on multiple fronts, GOP senators have been circulating a draft statement that defends his role in the process and insists he had no influence in jury deliberations. One senator who voted to acquit, Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, confirmed the existence of such a statement, calling it a “working draft of an oped … that is in the process of being edited for publication in the Wall Street Journal.”

Only two Republicans voted to convict Paxton: Sens. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills. Hancock has been more outspoken than Nichols, giving multiple interviews on his decision.

Hancock has said he is “at peace” with his decision and will not be intimidated as he considers whether to run for reelection in 2026.

Republican activists are already working to punish the House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton, starting with Phelan. The Texas GOP resolutions committee advanced a resolution Friday calling for Phelan’s resignation, saying he “pressured other House members to vote for the impeachment … and continues to defend his action despite the weakness of the case.” The full State Republican Executive Committee is expected to vote on the resolution Saturday.

Phelan’s office declined to comment.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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