Architect of Texas anti-abortion legislation struggles to collect legal fees in defamation case

Lawyer Jonathan Mitchell delayed in producing documents to complete the payment. When he finally did, they raised questions of who was paying him.

By Sarah Asch & Sean SaldanaJune 20, 2024 3:15 pm,

Jonathan Mitchell has earned a reputation as a champion for anti-abortion advocates. 

As a lawyer, he was the architect of Texas Senate Bill 8, which allows anyone to sue those who have, in the words of the law, “aided or abetted” an illegal abortion. 

Though Mitchell was the winning lawyer last year in a defamation case that had been filed against two of his clients by several abortion rights groups, he remains unable to collect the fees his clients would normally be owed by the losing side. 

Texas Monthly’s Mimi Swartz joined the show to explain. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What did you find when you looked into how Jonathan Mitchell was being paid related to a defamation case from 2020? 

Mimi Swartz: Well, this is a funny thing for a reporter to say, but what we found was nothing, which is not what we expected.

We were looking for who actually paid Mitchell’s legal bills, which has to be disclosed in order for him to collect. And what we found was a church that isn’t exactly a church. First he was saying that Mark Lee Dickson himself, his client, had paid the bills.

But then there was a change in the pleadings, and it was no, the church that Mark Lee Dickson runs was paying him. But then that church doesn’t exist. So the question really became, who is paying him? And we have ideas, but I wouldn’t say for sure.

This is really curious. First of all, let me establish the connection between this defamation case – if there is one – and what Mitchell is so well known for when it comes to his work in helping to craft these anti-abortion statutes. Could you say something about that? 

Sure. This was a defamation case in which several pro-choice groups finally had had enough of Dickson calling them “murderers” during the time when Roe still had not been overturned.

Dickson being who?

Mark Lee Dickson is definitely an anti-abortion advocate. He’s trying to create something called “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn,” where abortion is outlawed in various cities. And he was doing this while abortion was legal across the country.

And what happened was he would label various pro-choice groups as “murderers,” and they got tired of that and sued him for defamation. And Texas courts being what they are, Dickson won his case represented by Mitchell.

Then Mitchell went to collect his legal fees and, in order to pay, the other side had to have copies of his legal bills and and basically a signed contract between Mitchell and his client and he kind of dragged his feet and dragged his feet and dragged his feet. And when he finally produced certain documents, it was clear that his actual client, his stated client, wasn’t the one who paid him.

How did you come across this story? And why did you think this was important to this larger narrative of Mitchell and his role in Texas policymaking? 

Well, I got a tip on this story and then went to look at all the court pleadings, which are extensive. And the question really is many of Mitchell’s clients are not people of means. Mitchell usually charges $1,200 an hour. And so the question is, are these just normal people who are opposed to abortion paying Mitchell, or are they very wealthy?

One could say billionaires support this effort to end abortion, and who appear to be trying to conceal their identity.

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