The state’s highest criminal court has temporarily blocked a lower-court ruling that voided a six-figure payment to prosecutors in the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
In an order delivered late Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals gave Collin County — which had sued to halt the payments, saying they were based on an excessive $300-an-hour rate — 30 days to respond to arguments raised by the prosecutors.
The court also invited input from the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, which last month voided a bill for about $200,000 in payments to the prosecutors for more than a year of work on the case, mostly in 2016. With the case headed toward a December trial date, the prosecutors have not submitted a bill for work done this year.
In a petition filed last week, the three appointed prosecutors argued that unless overturned, the lower-court ruling “will have a chilling effect on the ability of trial judges to appoint qualified lawyers — defense attorneys and special prosecutors alike — willing to take on the most complicated and serious cases.”
Although not specified in the appeal, allowing the ruling to stand also could derail the prosecution of Paxton on two charges of securities fraud and one charge of failing to register with state securities regulators during private business deals in 2011 and 2012.
In a written statement, the prosecutors said they were grateful for the Court of Criminal Appeals’ action.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that the court will ultimately conclude that the 5th Court’s unwarranted decision to scuttle the fee schedules of over two-thirds of all Texas counties was a clear abuse of discretion,” they said.
Collin County has already paid $242,000 to the prosecutors for work done on the Paxton case in 2015. Faced with a second large bill for 2016, county officials sued earlier this year, saying the $300 hourly rate — promised by a judge who is no longer involved in the case — was excessive. The 5th Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the hourly rate exceeds what is allowed under state law and county rules.
Collin County officials have since voted to sue the prosecutors to recover previously paid money.
Paxton’s trial on the failure to register charge is scheduled to begin Dec. 11 in Houston, where his trial was moved earlier this year after prosecutors argued that they could not get a fair trial in Collin County, where Paxton lives.
The prosecutors have previously asked to place the case on hold until the fight over their pay has concluded. Another factor that could affect the trial date is the condition of Houston’s criminal justice center, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Harvey, raising the possibility of delays in pending criminal cases.