Texas Attorney General KenÂ PaxtonÂ talks with Jim Davis, deputy attorney general for civil litigation, in his office, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, in Austin. ( JonÂ ShapleyÂ / Houston Chronicle )
AUSTIN – Newly elected Harris County Judge Robert Johnson inherited the biggest case of his short judicial career Tuesday when the court assigned him to oversee the criminal trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is fighting securities fraud charges.
It’s a complicated criminal case nearly two years in the making, putting on trial a tenacious high-profile tea party Republican who is armed with a battery of seasoned defense attorneys and is the target of a trio of dogged special prosecutors for the state.
“He’ll have to be the ringmaster of a cult of personalities that will be in that courtroom and this will be a case where the eyes of the entire state will be on what is going on in there,” said Ed McClees, a criminal defense attorney and former chief of the organized crime section of the Harris County District Attorney’s office.
Johnson took the bench to the 177th State District Court in January after last year’s election that swept several Democrats into office in Harris County. Johnson claimed a narrow win, edging out Republican incumbent Ryan Patrick, who is the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican and Paxton ally. Johnson won the race over Patrick by a 52-48 percentage point margin.
Prior to winning office, Johnson was a criminal defense attorney for 13 years, according to his campaign website. A 2001 graduate of Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Johnson interned with the Ford Bend County District Attorney’s Office before opening his own practice.
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“I will make my ruling based upon the law and remain fair/impartial at all times,” read a statement from Johnson on his campaign website.
Johnson was randomly assigned the case, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s Office.
The judge should expect to be inundated with far more motions than typical criminal cases, along with interpreting nuances of the law and securities that most state criminal judges are unfamiliar with, said McClees, whose private practice includes white collar crime.
“He’s going to have a lot of homework to do as any judge would to get up to speed on the legal issues,” said McClees. “It’s going to be complicated and he’s got lawyers of extreme personalities on all sides, so he’s going to have his hands full.”
Fight on who would preside
His assignment follows months of wrangling over who should preside over the case. That was after Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher moved the trial out of Paxton’s home of Collin County to Harris County this spring amid concern the attorney general’s local supporters maintained too strong a grip over ancillary legal issues there, such as whether to pay special prosecutors owed some $500,000 in back pay.
Gallagher planned to stay with the case as it moved to Harris County, but Paxton’s defense team tried repeatedly to remove him from the case.
Paxton’s attorneys have argued Gallagher’s temporary assignment to the case had expired Dec. 31, 2016. They insist his decisions should be vacated, including his decision to move the case to Harris County.
Paxton’s winning argument stemmed from his refusal to sign off on paperwork to allow the judge to follow the case out of his jurisdiction. Although special prosecutors argued state lawmakers never meant for the little-used maneuver to allow parties to shake their last judge, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas agreed with Paxton and ruled Gallagher could not follow the case without Paxton’s permission. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, agreed with the attorney general’s legal team last week.
Paxton’s defense team and special prosecutors assigned to the case are under a gag order and cannot comment.
Facing fraud charges
The case concerns actions of the attorney general when he was a member of the Texas House of Representatives representing Collin County. The charges, unrelated to his tenure in public office, allege he persuaded friends and colleagues to invest in a North Texas tech company, Servergy, without disclosing he would make a commission. Paxton received 100,000 shared of company stock for recruiting $850,000 from investors. Paxton faces two counts of first-degree securities fraud and one count of failing to register with the state as an investment adviser.
If found guilty, he faces 99 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
A federal judge dismissed similar civil charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in March.
Murray Newman, a former assistant district attorney for Harris County turned criminal defense attorney who blogs about the inner workings of the Harris County criminal courts said the case will likely be “tedious,” which may pose a challenge for a rookie judge.
“It’s not your run of the mill blood and guts case that you see in Harris County. It’s a complicated case on its face,” said Newman. “He hasn’t had any major tests or cases to handle, yet. He’s starting up with a biggie.”