Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's trial moved to Harris County

AUSTIN, Texas – The judge in the securities fraud trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has ordered that his criminal trial be moved to Houston, prompting Paxton to ask for a new judge to hear the case.

Judge George Gallagher ruled on Tuesday that the trial would be moved from Collin County to Harris County. The judge ordered a change of venue last month after the special prosecutors in the case alleged that Paxton allies had tainted potential jurors in Collin Country through pretrial publicity.

Judge Gallagher said he chose Harris County because the lead attorneys for both the defense and prosecution are based in Houston, and because Harris County has adequate courtroom facilities to handle the trial.

On Tuesday afternoon, Paxton’s legal team filed a motion asking that a new judge be assigned to hear the case under state law governing changes of venue. The motion states in part:

“By this motion, Paxton respectfully advises the Court that he will not be giving the statutorily-required written consent under art. 31.09 to allow the Honorable George Gallagher or his court staff to continue to preside over the matter in Harris County. Paxton therefore requests that the Court order its clerk to send a certified copy of its file to the Harris County District Clerk that a new judge may be assigned.”

Paxton’s lawyers, Dan Cogdell and Phil Hilder, unsuccessfully fought against the change of venue, saying there was no evidence that potential Collin County jurors had been influenced.

Paxton faces two first-degree felony charges of securities fraud that carry a punishment range of up to 99 years in prison. He’s also charged with one third-degree felony of failing to register as an investment advisor. Paxton pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The change of venue to Harris County is seen by some observers as a setback for Paxton. Paxton is a tea party favorite. And Collin County, where Paxton has spent most of his professional and political career, is a staunchly conservative Republican bastion.

Harris County is considered to be more diverse. A majority of Harris County residents voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections.

But veteran Houston attorney Christopher Downey says that’s not necessarily a plus for the prosecution.

“It would be absurd to say we can’t get 12 fair jurors in Collin County. I just think it is much more likely you’re going to get those 12 fair jurors more quickly in a county like Harris County,” Downey said.

Special prosecutors Kent Schafer and Brian Wice said in February they intend to try Paxton on the charge of failing to register as financial advisor first, to be followed with a second trial on the securities fraud charges.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense commented on Tuesday’s developments due to a gag order that was issued last month by Gallagher.

A federal judge dismissed the U.S. government's securities fraud civil lawsuit against Paxton earlier this year, ruling that Paxton had "no plausible legal duty" to disclose his arrangement.

The trial had been scheduled to begin May 1, but has been postponed due to the change of venue order. The start of the trial could be delayed for months.