Acting as Paxton impeachment judge, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issues sweeping gag order

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gavels in the Senate at the state Capitol in Austin. Credit: Joe Timmerman/The Texas Tribune

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday issued a wide-ranging gag order ahead of the impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying “out-of-court statements” by both sides could jeopardize the trial in the Texas Senate.

The order, which went into immediate effect, cites what Patrick called “particularly egregious” statements that “pose a serious and imminent threat” to the impartiality of Paxton’s trial, which begins Sept. 5.

Violators can be found in contempt of court and punished with up to six months in a county jail and a fine of up to $500, the gag order said.

The order prohibits parties — including members of the Senate and House and their staffs, witnesses and attorneys — from making statements that they “reasonably should know” will have a “substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing the trial.”

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That includes, among other statements, those “concerning the expected testimony” or “character, reputation or credibility” of witnesses, parties or attorneys involved in the trial, and “any opinion” as to whether the articles of impeachment should be dismissed or sustained, the gag order said.

The order also bars statements about the “identity or nature” of evidence that may be presented at the trial, statements about subpoenas issued in the matter, or statements about “any information” that could “create a substantial risk of prejudicing” the trial.

Patrick said the sweeping order was justified because, unlike in civil or criminal trials, the jury — 30 of the 31 senators — cannot be replaced if there is evidence that their impartiality is tainted. Senate trial rules barred one potential juror — Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney — from participating in deliberations or decisions in the impeachment trial, citing a conflict of interest.

The order cites comments made by attorneys for both Paxton and the House impeachment managers, including Paxton lead attorney Tony Buzbee’s claims that the House investigation was an “evil, illegal and unprecedented weaponization of state power,” and a claim by one of the House’s lead prosecutors, Rusty Hardin, that his team had uncovered allegations that “will blow your mind.”

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Patrick, who is acting as judge in the impeachment trial, was required to issue a gag order under impeachment rules that were approved by the Texas Senate last month. Paxton, who was suspended from office upon a 121-23 impeachment vote by the House, would be permanently removed from office if two-thirds of senators agree.

The gag order follows weeks of sniping between the two camps ahead of the trial.

Earlier this month, Buzbee announced that Paxton’s defense team will fight any attempts to force Paxton to testify in front of the Senate.

Shortly before the gag order was made public Monday, Buzbee issued a statement that accused House impeachment managers — most of whom are Republicans — of “obstructing” the discovery process and orchestrating a “sham” impeachment against Paxton because of the attorney general’s strong opposition to President Joe Biden.

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A news conference to discuss the discovery issue, set for Tuesday in Buzbee’s Houston office, was canceled, Buzbee said Monday afternoon in a text message.

A spokesperson for the House impeachment managers declined to comment Monday afternoon, citing the gag order that had just gone into effect.

Government watchdog groups previously decried the requirement of a gag order, which they said would further mire the impeachment deliberations in secrecy despite Patrick’s vow for “total transparency” in the matter.

Critics had already taken issue with the opaque, behind-closed-doors process by which the trial rules were set last month, as well as rules requiring each side’s witness list and pretrial motions, including requests from Paxton’s team to have articles of impeachment thrown out, to be confidential ahead of the trial.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.