Senate Republicans say House managers failed to meet high burden of proof

State senators file into the Texas Senate to cast their votes on the articles of impeachment on Sept. 16, 2023. (Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune, Bob Daemmrich For The Texas Tribune)

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Senate Democrats, disappointed by the acquittal of Attorney General Ken Paxton, accused their Republican colleagues of caving to political pressure, while many of the Republicans who voted against conviction said the House failed to prove its case.

“Simply put, the burden of proof — beyond a reasonable doubt — was not met,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, said in a statement released after voting ended in the historic impeachment trial on Saturday.

Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, rejected that argument from Republicans, instead blaming the failure to impeach on “outside influence placed on members.”

“They caved to that pressure,” she said. “They were getting bombarded with text messages from outside groups. And you could just tell that they were being influenced by that, you know, except a few of them.”

The 16 articles the Senate heard evidence on during the weeklong trial centered on allegations by House impeachment managers that Paxton misused the powers of the attorney general’s office to help his friend and donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor who was under federal investigation.

The most support any articles received to convict Paxton was 14 votes, far below the threshold of 21 that would have removed him from office.

Only two Republicans crossed the aisle to vote in favor of conviction: Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, who voted to impeach Paxton on 12 articles, and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, who voted to impeach Paxton on 11 articles.

Hancock exited the Capitol in a hurry, having changed from his suit into a white golf shirt.

When asked about his vote, Hancock responded that he “wasn’t siding with anyone.”

“It was my constitutional obligation to seek the truth based on the facts made available through witness testimony and all documents admitted into evidence, then vote accordingly,” Hancock said later in a statement. “My vote on each article reflects that responsibility, and none was taken lightly.”

Nichols did not respond to requests for comment and did not release a public statement about his vote until Monday, when he said he found the evidence and witness testimony "credible."

"The oath I swore, to render a true verdict based on the evidence presented, did not leave room for politics or second guessing. I have – and always will – vote for what I believe is right," he said.

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, described the roughly eight hours of deliberations as “intense,” noting that some senators switched into tennis shoes in preparation for a long process. He said many GOP senators were engaged in good-faith discussions about the evidence.

“But it makes me sad and exhausted because I feel like they didn't change anything,” Johnson said. “It didn’t change the outcome.”

Other Democrats said they saw the winds shifting during the deliberation.

“Once it was real clear that we weren’t going to get 21 votes, I believe that some Republicans that wanted to support impeachment decided to vote against impeachment,” said state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, a Democrat who voted to impeach on most articles.

Alvarado said she felt the trial started off as impartial, but the tide started to turn away from possible impeachment in the last 24 to 48 hours.

“There were some sidebar conversations going on and I think at some point yesterday [I] started to realize that people were changing their mind,” she said.

The Senate Democrats didn’t uniformly vote to convict Paxton on every article. Only two Democrats voted to convict him on all counts: Borris Miles of Houston and Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, who is running against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

The only senator who did not vote in the trial left with a smile on her face: the attorney general’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney. She was prohibited from participating in deliberations or voting due to spousal conflict, however, she was required to be present for the entirety of the trial. As she left the Capitol with her staffer holding a styrofoam cup and to-go container, she said she felt great about the verdict.

Angela Paxton agreed with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s calls to change the rules around impeachment. Before concluding the proceedings, Patrick gave an impassioned speech railing against the way the House handled the impeachment, calling it a “flawed process.”

The Texas House of Representatives “sent something over half-baked, and it costs taxpayers a lot of money,” she said.

At the end of the trial, Angela Paxton hugged Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who exited the Senate chamber to a crowd of reporters where he said the impeachment “never should have happened.”

“The House was on a mission without considering what it was going to take to get there,” he told reporters. “They set the objective and then filled in behind it.”

In May, the Texas House voted to impeach Paxton on 20 different articles, kicking off an impeachment trial in the Senate, where they chose to only hear evidence on 16. The four other articles were held in abeyance during the trial, and then dismissed Saturday afternoon.

The 16 articles included charges of disregard of official duty, misapplication of public resources, constitutional bribery, conspiracy and attempted conspiracy, dereliction of duty, unfitness for office, and abuse of public trust.

On the first day, six senators voted to dismiss all the impeachment articles altogether, including Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Bob Hall of Edgewood, Tan Parker of Flower Mound and Kolkhorst.

Half of those senators — Bettencourt, Campbell and Parker — are up for reelection next year. Nichols and Hancock, the Republicans who voted to convict, are among those up for reelection in 2026.

In a statement, Bettencourt said the reason he voted on the first day to dismiss the impeachment articles was because the House did not take evidence from witnesses under oath or allow cross examination from Paxton’s attorneys, stating the House “avoided this key step.”

Bettencourt said he supported Patrick’s call to change the impeachment process to include those requirements.

Kolkhorst said in a statement that she reached the decision to acquit “after careful consideration and review of all evidence and witness testimony.”

In the end, Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, said “self interest won” with Saturday’s decision.

“But this morning, the Texas Senate restored Ken Paxton to office, setting a new and lower standard for public service in Texas,” she said.

Renzo Downey contributed to this story.

Neelam Bohra is a disability reporting fellow, covering accessibility issues affecting Texans. She was a member of the 2022-23 New York Times Fellowship class. Her fellowship is a partnership between The New York Times, The Texas Tribune and the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. The fellowship is funded through a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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