Our feature in this month’s issue of Texas Monthly on Republican Ken Paxton’s tenure as the state’s attorney general closely examined his first two years in office. But there were a few other details on Paxton that we couldn’t quite fit into the piece.
As we reported in our story, Paxton has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration (a practice that might change once Trump takes office). While suing Obama has been good politics for Paxton, not every public policy promoted by Obama has been bad for the Paxton family.
In 2009, when Paxton was still a member of the Texas House, he took advantage of a provision in Obama’s “cash for clunkers” program that was designed to encourage drivers to switch from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric ones. But Paxton had something a little different in mind. He used the provision to obtain a federal tax credit to cover the cost of buying a golf cart. The program offered drivers a rebate of between $4,200 and $5,500.
Paxton declined our interview requests for our story, but he did answer questions over email, and we asked him about his golf cart purchase. “I spend a lot of time dealing with the philosophical and political imprudence of the Obama administration,” Paxton wrote. “Rarely do their policies offer much benefit to Texans, but if the president wants to offer a tax rebate to people who purchase a golf cart, I suggest people who enjoy golf carts make a similar purchase as I did.”
We included some of Paxton’s responses in our story, but we didn’t have room for all of them. Here are his answers in their entirety (the email exchange occurred prior to the presidential election):
Texas Monthly: You have repeatedly described religious freedom and life issues as your top priority as attorney general and even made suggestions on potential laws to the Legislature. Why choose those issues over some of the more traditional attorney general issues such as public school finance or criminal justice?
Ken Paxton: All of the issues you mention are highly important to me and the work of the Office of the Attorney General. In my tenure as attorney general, my office achieved a landmark victory in the Texas Supreme Court preserving our school finance system, officers from our law enforcement division arrested their 7000th fugitive, and we have expanded our efforts to combat human trafficking. All the while, the people of Texas have overwhelmingly supported the stance my office takes on issues of religious liberty and life.
TM: In an April 2015 speech to what was then called the Liberty Institute, you said religious liberty should stand against “the government” or “mob rule,” and referred to a “pop culture noise machine.” On the flip side, though, doesn’t that also imply that a minority can impose its will on the majority?
KP: In our Constitution, the framers created a Republican form of government where the people would decide how they would be governed, but also understood that we all have certain inalienable rights that cannot be taken away from us—and that those rights must sometimes by protected against the tyranny of the majority. Religious freedom is one those rights. Defending religious freedom is not about imposing one’s will on the majority, but preserving the right of an individual to freely exercise one’s deeply held religious beliefs in living his or her life. That is something everyone should support.
TM: As a defender of life, does it bother you that one of the major jobs of the attorney general’s office is to make certain death sentences in criminal cases are carried out?
KP: No. My duty is to uphold and defend all valid laws of the State of Texas, regardless of my personal beliefs. Our current laws support the defense of innocent life in the womb and punishment for the vilest of convicted offenders.
TM: Your wife sings a ditty to the tune of the Crawdad Hole in which she says she’s a pistol-packin’ mamma and her husband sues Obama. Many of the lawsuits your office is handling against the Obama administration are stewardships of cases begun under Greg Abbott. Please, tell me about one of the cases that originated in your administration and explain why an average reader should care about it.
KP: Since January of 2015, I have sued the Obama administration 13 times. One of the most recent cases concerned the issue of schools’ rights and affects every public school in the State of Texas. The Obama administration issued a directive to school districts in our state based on a blatantly incorrect rewriting of Title IX—and threatened to take away federal funding if schools refused to fall in line. We, along with 12 other states, sued to stop this this abuse of power by the president. Regardless of your policy views, democracy and the Constitutional process should be something everyone cares about. If the president wants Title IX to cover gender identity, there are a lot of things he can do: ask Congress to amend Title IX, ask the people to elect representatives, and much more. What he cannot do is simply rewrite the law to suit his policy preferences. Remember: even if you like the president’s policy positions today, there will come a day when we have a president whose policies you despise. Defend the Constitution today and it will protect you tomorrow.
TM: Why do you think your office has suffered setbacks in the HB2 and voter identification cases? Even your long-term success in the immigration case does not look promising if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.
KP: Many of the cases we file revolve around highly charged issues on which judges may or may not side with us. While we did not obtain the result we would have liked in our HB2 litigation, the Supreme Court also gave us a favorable outcome in our challenge to President Obama’s illegal immigration policy, and I am extremely confident they will uphold our Voter ID laws.
As for the future of the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, I am reminded of a quote by Justice Robert H. Jackson: “reversal by a higher court is not proof that justice is thereby better done. There is no doubt that if there were a super-Supreme Court, a substantial proportion of our reversals of state courts would also be reversed. We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”
I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution and I will always work to uphold that oath, regardless of what five Justices may ultimately say on the issue.
TM: I don’t want to delve into the specifics of the outside criminal and civil cases, but I do want to ask how it has affected you and your family emotionally.
KP: There is an indescribable peace in our family when, in the depths of our being, we know that I am innocent.
TM: From looking at DPS records, your schedules and travel records, you appear to be spending a great deal of time, if not most of your time, in McKinney instead of Austin, are you really able to be an effective leader of your office when you are not present?
KP: I spend every day tirelessly defending, promoting, and serving our great state, whether in Austin, traveling around Texas, or close to home with my family. In this day and age, I am able to be in constant communication with my attorneys in our Austin office regardless of where I am in Texas.
TM: Why did you replace Chip Roy and Allison Castle with Jeff Mateer and Marc Rylander? The word around the Capitol is that you were jealous that other attorneys in the office were receiving attention that you were not and that the underlying motivation was to increase your public profile as attorney general. There also is an assumption that increased personal publicity is intended to improve the public’s perception of you.
KP: I have always tried to hire or appoint people to my staff who bring to the office high levels of competence, chemistry, and character. I made the decision in March to make personnel changes that I felt would strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of my deputy staff and the entire agency, and these changes have been overwhelmingly positive.
TM: In the aftermath of the Dallas police shootings, Governor Abbott rushed back to Texas with burned feet. Lt. Gov. Patrick visited families in the hospitals. But you spent the day doing one television interview after another. Was that the best use of your time as a public official in the midst of that crisis?
KP: The Attorney General of Texas is the chief legal officer of Texas. Following the tragic ambush on our police officers in Dallas, I spent two days on the ground in downtown Dallas meeting with dozens of law enforcement officers and officials. With a strong media presence near the shooting site and the Dallas Police headquarters, I was asked to speak with the public numerous times through local, national, and international media outlets.
TM: When you intervened in the Exxon case involving the attorney general of the Virgin Islands, there was some question about the propriety of a state attorney general getting involved in litigation of a specific company. Carrying that forward, could you see any possibility that your office might intervene in litigation involving religious freedom, if there is a case like Sweetcakes by Melissa in Texas?
KP: We will always consider intervening in cases to defend constitutional rights.
TM: When this story runs, you will be finishing your first two years as attorney general. Looking forward, what do you think will be important to you over the next two years of heading the agency?
KP: I will steadfastly and diligently continue (1) to defend vigorously the laws of the State of Texas and provide skillful legal representation, counsel, and advice to state officials and agencies; (2) to secure justice for Texans through investigative and prosecutorial assistance on criminal matters, including human trafficking, online sexual exploitation, sex offender apprehension, money laundering, white collar crime, and crimes committed by transnational organized criminals; (3) to serve the children of Texas by ensuring that the Texas child support laws are enforced and child support is properly collected; (4) to protect Texans from fraud, waste, and abuse by properly enforcing our consumer protection, antitrust, and Medicaid abuse laws; and (5) to defend the freedom of Texas from an over-reaching federal government when it violates separation of powers and principles of federalism threatening individual liberties.
TM: Is there anything I have not asked about that you would like to emphasize about your service as attorney general
KP: I have been blown away by the talent and professionalism of the people who work for the Office of the Attorney General. These people have devoted their careers to public service, and I am humbled by the opportunity to lead them in the defense of the State of Texas and its citizens.