The criminal trial of Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton should be held in Collin Co. instead of Harris Co., where it has been pending since 2017, the First Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) today (Thursday). A divided panel of three Democratic justices affirmed a lower court’s decision to stay another court’s order setting aside another court’s order to move the case to Harris Co. The issue of venue has been pending before the First Court of Appeals for seven months.
The court’s order (PDF) provides a lengthy discussion of the procedural cases as well as the underlying criminal cases’ winding paths between courts, which is summarized below:
- On July 28, 2015 a felony case was brought against Paxton in Collin Co. and assigned to the 416th District Court, presided over at the time by Judge Chris Oldner (R).
- Oldner recused himself from the case the next day.
- The case was assigned by the Presiding Judge of the First Administrative Judicial Region to the 396th District Court in Tarrant Co., which was at the time and still is presided over by Judge George Gallagher (R).
- Gallagher’s bench is actually in the Eighth Administrative Judicial Region. He was assigned to the First Region by the Eight Region’s presiding judge at the request of the First Region’s presiding judge.
- Gallagher had 157 days to act on the case. He did not. A second order from the Eighth Region’s presiding judge extended Gallagher’s assignment of the case for another 366 days, ending January 2, 2017. He did not hold a trial on the merits during that period but he scheduled one for May 1, 2017.
- Importantly, Gallagher’s assignment to the case ended on January 2, 2017, yet he “nevertheless continued to preside over the underlying cases” noted today’s ruling.
- On the same day, Oldner was succeeded by Judge Andrea Thompson (R).
- Gallagher granted prosecutors’ motion to change the venue on March 30, 2017. Gallagher agreed with prosecutors that Paxton would not receive a fair trial in Collin Co. because of his political ties (Indeed, Collin Co. residents sued over the prosecutors’ pay, which spawned its own series of procedural delays.). In a supplemental order issued two weeks later, Gallagher changed the venue to Harris County.
- Gallagher set a September 12 trial date with the goal of having it completed by September 22, 2017.
- Paxton’s team asked that a new judge be assigned.
- Paxton’s legal team formally objected on May 10, 2017. They contended that Gallagher’s order moving the case to Harris Co. was void because his assignment had expired before it was made. Gallagher ordered the objection to moving the case to Harris Co. be heard in Harris Co.
- Paxton’s team filed petitions before the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas seeking to have Gallagher’s order tossed. That court issued a stay.
- That Court ruled that Gallagher had no authority to enter orders once the case was transferred to Harris Co. Importantly, it did not consider whether Gallagher had the authority to move it in the first place.
- The case was formally transferred to Harris Co. on June 9, 2017. A random draw assigned it to the 177th District Court, which was presided over by Judge Robert Johnson (D).
- More than two years later and following legal skirmishes over the special prosecutors’ compensation, Paxton’s team filed a motion on July 18, 2019, asking Johnson to vacate Gallagher’s decision.
- Nearly a year later, on June 25, 2020, Johnson granted that motion, vacating Gallagher’s decision to move the case to Harris Co.
- Five days later, prosecutors asked the First Court of Appeals to vacate Johnson’s decision and compel him to rule on various pending motions. The appellate court stayed Johnson’s order that would have moved the case back to Collin Co.
- Johnson recused himself from the underlying cases on July 6, 2020.
- They were reassigned to the 185th District Court, presided over by Judge Jason Luong (D).
- Luong agreed that Gallagher’s jurisdiction over the case had indeed expired prior to his transferring it to Harris Co., so the case was ordered back to Collin Co. on October 23, 2020. Luong ruled he has no jurisdiction to review any of the other pending motions, and he said he would nonetheless send the case back to Collin Co. even if the First Court of Appeals gave his court jurisdiction.
- The First Court of Appeals stayed that order and placed the case on its active docket, where it sat for seven months.
- That brings us to today’s ruling, which sends the case back to Collin Co. after determining that Gallagher lacked the authority to move it to Harris Co. because his assignment had already expired.
In a dissent, Justice Gordon Goodman (D) said, “Whichever district court ultimately receives these cases should move them to trial as expeditiously as possible.” Citing that dissent among the three-judge panel, prosecutors urged the full First Court of Appeals to decide the matter.
Paxton was indicted on three felony counts of securities fraud and acting as an unregistered investment adviser. He has maintained his innocence throughout the legal proceedings. A similar federal civil case has been dismissed twice.
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