Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, already facing three felony charges related to illegal lobbying in Collin County, received even more bad news Wednesday when a Texas State Bar disciplinary committee announced that it would allow to move forward a complaint about Paxton's acts in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
Following the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, Paxton hurried to issue an opinion that said, in effect, that state officials who didn't agree with the new law of the land didn't have to follow it. He urged county clerks, justices of the peace and county judges to exercise their "religious liberty" and refuse to marry or issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He promised that any clerk who followed his or her conscience would be backed up by his office in the court case that would inevitably follow.
"It is important to note that any clerk who wishes to defend their religious objections and who chooses not to issue licenses may well face litigation and/or a fine. But, numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights," he said.
Paxton's promise was put to the test, and he tucked tail. When Hood County Clerk Katie Lang refused to issue licenses to gay couples, she got sued and promptly allowed her office to begin issuing licenses. The attorney general's office did not help her out.
Paxton himself quickly caved on his office's final stand, too, dropping objections he'd had to issuing appropriate death and birth certificates to married same-sex couples in order to dodge a contempt citation issued by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. With Wednesday's announcement, Paxton could face professional consequences.
The Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals reinstated a complaint to the state bar filed by a group of judges and lawyers claiming that Paxton's opinion amounted to official misconduct in his capacity as a lawyer.
“Attorney General Paxton violated his own official oath of office to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state,’” the lawyers said.
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Initially, the complaint was dismissed without Paxton having had to respond. Now, he'll have to do that. He'll have to provide an explanation as to how he thought defying the Supreme Court amounted to defending the Constitution of the United States.
Eddie Rodriguez, one of the lawyers who filed the complaint, said in a statement Wednesday that Paxton also unethically encouraged county clerks to break the law.
"The Texas ethics rules prohibit any lawyer, including the attorney general, from counseling a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent," Rodriguez said.
Paxton's spokesman, Anthony Holm, did not respond to a request for comment.