The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Trials of Our Would-Be Rulers Highlight the Limits of American Justice

By Michael King, April 19, 2024, 3:03pm, Newsdesk

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

For the last several days, we’ve been provided a glimpse of what passes for public accountability among the rich and powerful in America – what The New York Times has recently taken to euphemize instead as “ultra high-net-worth individuals.” Although former president Donald Trump’s actual claim to that distinction is tenuous, he has managed to confound press and public for decades with the manufactured illusion that he’s “really rich” – and therefore immune from the petty obligations of ordinary citizens, like refraining from committing crimes.

After nearly four years of accumulated delays, Trump is finally standing trial for illegally concealing “hush money” payments to porn star Stormy Daniels in order to protect his 2016 presidential campaign – a form of campaign finance fraud. Unlike his previous two legal claims of defamation by writer E. Jean Carroll (whom he sexually assaulted) that resulted in judgments exceeding $83 million, and his $454 million judgment for financial fraud (under appeal), the current case could end in a criminal conviction and even a prison sentence. But Trump’s recent legal record is fairly grim, and most observers say a conviction is likely in this case – although it would take only one recalcitrant juror to save his sorry behind.

Readers might care to contemplate how likely it might be, were they facing judgments of – oh, $100,000 for defrauding a bank – that a court would shrug and say, put it on layaway. That it’s taken this long to coerce Trump into these courtrooms illustrates well how the U.S. justice system greatly favors the rich. With enough money to purchase endless delay, “justice” can be postponed sufficiently to appear increasingly meaningless. In Trump’s case, the relentless delays present the increasingly dismal prospect that if he can steal his way back into the White House, he can act immediately to wipe out any actual accountability that he might have endured by that point. (Doing so temporarily from behind bars would provide an unlikely poetic justice, but painfully small public comfort.)

The Paxton Farce

Closer to home, Texans should be well familiar with a nearby American paradigm of Power and Money vs. Justice. The Ken Paxton story provides another abject lesson in how the legal process can be twisted by the powerful to accommodate their criminal actions. Despite a strong majority of Texas House members filing impeachment charges against the attorney general for flagrant abuse of his office, he was protected by Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick and a craven flock of GOP senators.

Meanwhile, after nearly nine years of thinly motivated delays in the pursuit of felony security fraud charges against Paxton, prosecutors recently agreed to a frankly laughable settlement featuring restitution for those scammed by Paxton (to the tune of $271,000), 15 hours of classes in “legal ethics,” and 100 hours of “community service.” That the state’s attorney general needs special education in legal ethics is its own commentary on Paxton’s qualifications for the office. Under the settlement, Paxton doesn’t even have to concede any wrongdoing – presumably, he’s being slapped on the wrist for $271,000 worth of nothing at all.

Try that for boosting a bag of chips from your neighborhood convenience store.

Paxton’s defense lawyer hypocritically complained about the years it took to resolve the felony charges, when it was Paxton’s demands for special treatment that generated delay after delay after delay (see Agent Orange, above). The entire, years-long spectacle has been a public exercise in the powerful avoiding accountability, and a precise illustration of the contemporary political aphorism coined by composer Frank Wilhoit: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

Alas, the only community service proportionate to Paxton’s litany of offenses against the Texas public would take place behind bars. Instead, his political future has since been strengthened by largely successful GOP primary campaigns against those who opposed him – campaigns led by Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Paxton himself, and bankrolled by big donors such as West Texas oil-field tycoons Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, for whom the Republican Party is essentially a group of hired hands expected to perform Christian Nationalism on command. Together they have succeeded in undermining the rule of law in Texas, or at least the law as applied to members of the current state regime.

There remains a chance that a tangential form of justice might be achieved by the four Paxton-fired AG staff members still waiting for the multi-million dollar settlement that the House balked at paying. Paxton has tried to wriggle out of that case, but he might actually be required to testify about his ridiculously sordid relationship with Austin investor Nate Paul (already under indictment). And there’s another chance, slim but unresolved, that the lead-footed FBI will finally come up with its own conclusions about Paxton’s dubious behavior in office.

We can hope. But justice this long delayed…

Birds of a Feather

All this said, the Trump and Paxton “prosecutions,” such as they are, serve together to illustrate how thoroughly insulated the powerful are from the consequences of their actions. Paxton considers Trump a champion and a role model; Trump rushed to defend Paxton from impeachment and threatened any Republican who dared to oppose him. Like boat-tailed grackles squawking and flailing at smaller birds, they presume they can harass and intimidate anyone who gets in their way. They have been very successful at doing so, and have yet to be held accountable in any substantive way. For that to happen, widespread and permanent voter revulsion will have to do the job.

With Trump as the bloated GOP standard-bearer, the U.S. is rapidly barreling toward explicitly authoritarian rule, a goal enthusiastically supported by a substantial minority of citizens. Pilot versions are already in place in Texas, Florida, and many other states, where craven public officials akin to Paxton compete for Trump’s approval and MAGA glory. In order to earn face-time in the broadening array of right-wing media, they’re inventing new ways to abuse the powerless, and sharing impunity for whatever action that requires.

In that dismal vein, the state of Texas, led by Abbott, Patrick, and Paxton – and perhaps a new House Speaker anointed to replace designated “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) Dade Phelan – will continue to defy federal immigration law, spend billions on performative border enforcement, criminalize women’s healthcare, undermine public health and public education, and cheerfully immiserate the most vulnerable people in Texas. Their access to justice – and indeed survival – will remain conditional on their ability to pay for it.

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