The broken windows theory of criminology holds that lesser crimes and offenses, if met with no response from authorities, create an atmosphere of wrongdoing that encourages greater crimes and offenses. We can only guess what might have been if Texas attorney general Ken Paxton had been taken to the woodshed a few times earlier in his career to intervene when his grifting was less well-established. In 2013 Paxton famously took a fellow lawyer’s $1,000 Montblanc pen on camera at the Collin County courthouse; on Monday, he launched a bid to overturn the constitutional order of the United States.
That’s the upshot of Paxton’s lawsuit against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin: to invalidate their presidential election results and require that the legislatures of those states pick their own electors. Paxton’s theory is that changes in election administration to allow voting by mail have so tainted the results with potential tampering that the states—all of which are controlled by Republican legislatures—can’t be trusted to certify that no fraud took place. The suit, however, offers no compelling evidence that any fraud has taken place.
The substance of the lawsuit is farcical—legal observers from the left, right, and center have described it in terms ranging from “blisteringly stupid” to “utterly ridiculous.” The notion that the attorney general of Texas has any standing to ask for another state’s election results to be nullified is inventive, at best, and has elicited criticism from even Paxton’s former staffer, Republican congressman Chip Roy. The Supreme Court, which has declined to hear similar cases, is considered unlikely to even take up the suit, let alone side with the Texas attorney general. But simply asking for what amounts to a coup, and giving credence to the idea that presidential elections are a matter for Republican legislators and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to resolve, is patently dangerous and antidemocratic.
Texans have not had particularly high expectations for the state’s top law enforcement official for some time. In 2015 he was indicted on felony securities fraud charges, but he has kept the case from going to trial through a long-running series of delays and favors called in from friends in local government. Earlier this year, seven of Paxton’s top aides wrote a letter accusing him of accepting a bribe and of abusing his office to benefit a political donor and friend, Nate Paul, who also allegedly employed the attorney general’s mistress. But those are just two of the high points. Paxton is an inveterate flimflam man. His alleged wrongdoing extends far into the past and will likely extend indefinitely into the future. As Texas Monthly has reported, he was also accused of breaking some windows when he was an estate lawyer, when he was a state representative, and when he was a state senator.
Observers have suggested that this new heist attempt is connected to Paxton’s recent legal troubles. He filed the lawsuit on Monday. On Wednesday the FBI delivered a subpoena to Paxton regarding the Nate Paul scandal. The attorney general must feel like Henry Hill these days: Where’d that helicopter come from?
The president dined with Paxton on Thursday and asked for the Supreme Court’s permission to join the suit as a plaintiff. Our commander in chief is also said to be making his list and checking it twice this holiday season, and the expectation is that he’ll have a fat round of preemptive pardons for his various accomplices before he turns the lights out at the White House. Trump can’t pardon Paxton for state crimes, but the attorney general has shown that he has certain methods of dealing with state-level charges. With the FBI knocking, he is surely worried about the Feds cracking down too—and Biden’s Feds, at that. (Paxton denied on Fox News that he was seeking a pardon.)
But even if it’s not about a pardon, Paxton’s latest election lawsuit fits a pattern of behavior. Paxton responded to those securities fraud charges in 2015 by going back to his base and redoubling his commitment to battling as a warrior for its cause. Twice the culture war, twice the partisan hackery: in the period after his indictment, he took special care to weigh in on many minor red-meat skirmishes, including Texas’s transgender bathroom bill debate. Texas Republicans distanced themselves from Paxton in October after his latest legal problems: Governor Greg Abbott, who said this week that he supports the Texas attorney general’s new lawsuit, called the bribery allegation concerning. Now Paxton is once again trying to show the party’s faithful what he has left to offer.
It is some comfort that Paxton’s case is so poorly argued that the high court seems unlikely to bite. But whatever relief that provides should be drowned out by the knowledge that seventeen other Republican state attorneys general are supporting the suit and that more than 100 Republican members of Congress, including 13 of the 22 in the Texas delegation, signed a letter in support of it. Something has gone very wrong in the GOP that so many are charging into battle behind a man who couldn’t be trusted to borrow their pens.