The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dealt a major blow to prosecutors of the long and drawn-out political prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
In a ruling released Wednesday morning, the Court upheld a previous ruling of the Dallas Court of Appeals concluding that the hourly rate charged by appointed prosecutors on the case runs afoul of state law. The law requires that such compensation is dispensed on either a fixed-rate basis or within reasonable minimum and maximum hourly rates matching the amounts paid to court-appointed defense attorneys.
“Here, the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing an order for payment of fees that is not in accordance with an approved fee schedule containing reasonable fixed rates or minimum and maximum hourly rates,” the court’s opinion states.
Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice, two private defense attorneys from Houston, were appointed by Judge Scott Becker to prosecute Paxton after the Collin County district attorney recused himself due to his personal relationship with the attorney general. In a backroom deal, Becker agreed to pay the pair an uncapped fee of $300 per hour for their “services.” This rate resulted in a massive bill that had reached nearly $600,000 in 2016 alone.
After a series of legal setbacks made it clear Paxton had done nothing wrong, Collin County taxpayers began to question whether the prosecutors were carrying forward on the case solely to rack up legal fees for themselves. If the case had gone to trial at the $300 per hour rate, Wice and Schaffer could have expected to earn upward of $1 million.
Schaffer was also found to have charged taxpayers for work supposedly performed while on six vacations and a weekend getaway, from Marrakesh to Myanmar.
Collin County refused to pay the prosecutors’ latest bill, resulting in a series of appeals that eventually reached the state’s highest appellate court for criminal law matters.
Meanwhile, while Paxton has been victorious in the face of the political prosecution, having won re-election for four more years as the state’s leading attorney, Judge Becker has been thrown out by Collin County voters. Becker failed to even make the Republican primary runoff for his position on the 219th District Court.
The case has since moved to Harris County, and a new judge in the case, Robert Johnson, will now have to decide an appropriate fee for the prosecutors, which may be as low as a flat $2,000. Schaffer and Wice will have the opportunity to decide whether or not they will continue the prosecution at the lower rate.