The GOP-led Texas House of Representatives impeached state Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday, a sudden, historic rebuke of a fellow Republican who rose to be a star of the conservative legal movement despite years of scandal and alleged crimes.
The vote triggers Paxton's immediate suspension from office pending the outcome of a trial in the state Senate and empowers Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint someone else as Texas' top lawyer in the interim. Final removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Paxton's wife's, Angela, is a member.
The 121-23 vote constitutes an abrupt downfall for one of the GOP's most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden's electoral defeat of Donald Trump. It makes Paxton only the third sitting official in Texas' nearly 200-year history to have been impeached.
Moments after the vote, Paxton's office said the impeachment was "based on totally false claims" and pointed to internal reports that found no wrongdoing. House investigators said the attorney general's probe into Paxton's actions includes false and disproven claims.
"No one person should be above the law, least not the top law enforcement officer of the state of Texas," Representative David Spiller, a Republican member of the committee that investigated Paxton, said in opening statements.
Representative Ann Johnson, a Democratic member, told lawmakers that Texas' "top cop is on the take."
As the articles of impeachment, which include bribery and abuse of public trust, were laid out, some of the lawmakers shook their heads.
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, though he has yet to stand trial. Until this week, his fellow Republicans had taken a muted stance on the allegations.
Lawmakers allied with Paxton tried to discredit the investigation by noting that hired investigators, not panel members, interviewed witnesses. They also said several of the investigators had voted in Democratic primaries, tainting the impeachment, and that they had too little time to review evidence.
"I perceive it could be political weaponization," said Representative Tony Tinderholt, one of the House's most conservative members. Republican Representative John Smithee compared the proceeding to "a Saturday mob out for an afternoon lynching."
Texas' top elected Republicans had been notably quiet about Paxton this week. But on Saturday both Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to his defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process "a travesty" and saying the attorney general's legal troubles should be left to the courts.
"Free Ken Paxton," Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, warning that if House Republicans proceeded with the process, "I will fight you."
Abbott, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in for a third term in January, has remained silent. The governor spoke at a Memorial Day service in the House chamber about three hours before the impeachment proceedings began. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan also attended but the two appeared to exchange few words, and Abbott left without commenting to reporters.