For over a year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been prosecuting Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens – the first, and one of only two, female African American Sheriffs in Texas. The case has been controversial and political from day one. First, the felony charge is for a minor, technical error. Sheriff Stephens was charged after correcting a donation entry on a campaign finance form. Moreover, Paxton forum shopped the case from majority minority Jefferson County to solidly Anglo Republican Chambers County, betting that a Chambers-based Republican judge would go harder on Sheriff Stephens. The Lone Star Project detailed the case in a report last summer.
Judge slaps down Paxton’s felony charge against Sheriff Stephens
Yesterday, State District Court Judge Randy McDonald, a Republican, flatly dismissed the felony charge against Sheriff Stephens, ruling that Paxton did not have the authority to prosecute a case focused on altering state documents in Chambers County.
A responsible Attorney General without a larger agenda would have accepted the judge’s ruling and moved on to other state matters. However, attorney’s representing Paxton revealed that his office was considering appealing the ruling.
Why would Ken Paxton appeal an unfavorable ruling around such a minor charge?
A successful appeal would give Paxton legal leverage over virtually every elected official in Texas
The Stephens case, though focused on a minor violation, could have broad and ominous repercussions. If a state appeals court overturns the district court decision, it would give Ken Paxton the authority to level felony charges based on campaign filing mistakes and then forum shop the prosecution. Ken Paxton would stand as an existential threat to virtually every politician in Texas.
Mistakes on campaign filings happen often. In fact, Paxton himself along with Dan Patrick have been forced to amend incorrect filings. The Attorney General has considerable resources to scour campaign filings and find mistakes. With his new broad authority, Paxton could leverage, threaten and coerce public officials with the threat of felony prosecution.
Democrats in counties like Dallas, Harris and Travis would be particularly threatened. Paxton could trump up a felony charge based on a filing error and then move the case to a solidly Republican adjacent county. Look at some of the counties that touch on Dallas and Harris and Travis.