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Texas Attorney General Gets National Attention After Pursuing High-Profile Lawsuits

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a profile next of a state official who's made a lot of national news in recent weeks, Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas. He's a Republican who has aligned himself with President Trump through high-profile lawsuits. KERA's Bret Jaspers in Dallas has the profile.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: When Paxton recently sued to overturn election results in four swing states, the Supreme Court refused to hear it. The spectacle shined a national spotlight on Ken Paxton, but civil rights groups in Texas have been battling him for years. After the court legalized same-sex marriage, Paxton issued guidance to county clerks.

SHELLY SKEEN: And said, if it violates your religious beliefs, you can refuse to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. Now, you might be subject to a lawsuit if you do that.

JASPERS: That's Shelly Skeen, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an LGBT civil rights group. County clerks, by and large, followed the ruling of the Supreme Court, but this was an early indication of how Paxton would use religion as the state's top lawyer.

SKEEN: He's putting that first, as opposed to complying with what the law says. And that's his job, is to comply with what the law says, give advice on that and then also to enforce it.

JASPERS: The ACLU of Texas has confronted the state AG many times. Andre Segura is legal director.

ANDRE SEGURA: This, for me, started in 2015, early 2016, when he tried to block refugees from settling in Texas.

JASPERS: Segura has also fought Paxton over voting rights. Paxton has lawsuits pending to end the DACA program and throw out the entire Affordable Care Act. His legal efforts could potentially have a broad effect on national policy. Paul Nolette is a professor of political science at Marquette University and studies state attorneys general. He says the job has evolved over the past 20 years.

PAUL NOLETTE: A lot of AGs fall into this category that they're much more interested in national politics than they were in the past. They have this national influence in a way that they didn't even a couple decades ago. And Paxton, I think, is kind of a shining example.

JASPERS: Other examples include liberal AGs in California and New York, big states that have often sued the Trump administration. Republican Tom Rath is the former attorney general for New Hampshire, where, unlike Texas, the AG is appointed by the governor. He says suing the federal government can be part of the job.

TOM RATH: Look; at times, there could be a federal law or regulation that's at odds with the needs of the state, that runs contrary to how the state operates. And I think that's an appropriate circumstance in which the attorney general may say, this runs contrary to our interests.

JASPERS: Rath did not support, however, Paxton's lawsuit attempting to overturn election results in four states. He called the time and money spent on it a waste.

The suit brought renewed attention to Paxton and his own legal troubles. He's been under state indictment for securities fraud for five years. Separately, several of his former high-ranking staffers are accusing him of abusing his office. The FBI is reportedly investigating, and Paxton denies wrongdoing.

The state attorney general's office didn't return emails seeking an interview, but in November, Paxton spoke to Austin TV station KXAN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEN PAXTON: We're doing some amazing things. And so I would just say the proof is in the pudding. Look at the results of what we've accomplished.

JASPERS: Paxton has trumpeted his Obamacare lawsuit, as well as an antitrust investigation of Google and his campaign against purported election fraud, an effort that has yielded scant evidence. Andre Segura of the ACLU of Texas says a new Biden administration should expect plenty of legal challenges coming from Paxton's office.

SEGURA: I think we need to be really on our toes about what an attorney general like Ken Paxton will be doing in this new administration to fight back against any movement forward on civil rights.

JASPERS: And Ken Paxton is likely to run for reelection in 2022.

For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "YOU GO UP, I GO DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.