When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently sued to overturn election results in four swing states, the Supreme Court refused to hear it. The spectacle shined a national spotlight on Paxton, but civil rights groups in Texas have been battling him for years.
Like in 2015, after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Paxton, then in his first year as Texas AG, quickly issued guidance to county clerks that said if the decision violated a clerk’s religious beliefs, he or she could refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Paxton acknowledged the clerks could be sued.
Although clerks by and large followed the ruling of the Supreme Court, this was an early indication of how Paxton would use religion as the state’s top lawyer.
“He’s putting that first, as opposed to complying with what the law says,” said Shelly Skeen, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an LGBT civil rights group. “And that’s his job: [to] comply with what the law says, give advice on that, and then also to enforce it.”
The ACLU of Texas has confronted the state AG many times over civil rights issues.
“This for me started in 2015, early 2016 when he tried to block refugees from settling in Texas,” said legal director Andre Segura.
The ACLU continually fights Paxton over voting rights issues. Paxton has lawsuits pending to end the DACA program and throw out the entire Affordable Care Act. His legal efforts could potentially have a broad effect on national policy.
Republican state AGs like Paxton have been key allies of President Trump, whereas much of the pushback against the president has come in the form of lawsuits – more than a hundred of them – from Democratic state Attorneys General.
Paul Nolette, a professor of political science at Marquette University who studies state Attorneys General, said the job has evolved over the past 20 years.
“A lot of AGs fall into this category,” he said. “They’re much more interested in national politics than they were in the past. They have this national influence in a way that they didn’t even a couple of decades ago. And Paxton I think [is] kind of a shining example.”
Other examples include liberal AGs in California and New York, big states that have often sued the Trump Administration.
Republican Tom Rath is former attorney general for New Hampshire, where unlike Texas, the AG is appointed by the governor. He said suing the federal government can be part of the job.
“Look, at times there could be a federal law or regulation that’s at odds with the needs of the state, that runs contrary to how the state operates,” he said. “I think that’s an appropriate circumstance in which the Attorney General may say, this runs counter to our interest.”
Rath did not support Paxton’s lawsuit attempting to overturn election results in four states. He called the time and money spent on it a “waste.”
The suit brought renewed attention to Paxton and his own legal troubles. He’s been under state indictment for securities fraud for five years. Separately, several of his former high ranking staffers are accusing him of abusing his office. The FBI is reportedly investigating, and Paxton denies wrongdoing.
The state Attorney General’s office didn’t return emails seeking an interview, but in November, Paxton spoke to Austin TV station KXAN.
“We’re doing some amazing things. And so, I would say the proof is in the pudding. Look at the results of what we’ve accomplished,” he said.
Segura said a new Biden administration should expect plenty of legal challenges coming from Paxton’s office.
“I think we need to be really on our toes about what an Attorney General like Ken Paxton will be doing in this new administration to fight back against any movement forward on civil rights,” he said.
And Paxton is likely to run for reelection in 2022.