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What Does the Attorney General Do? And Who's Running to be the Next One?

Photo courtesy The Texas Tribune, Michael Stravato and Cooper Neill
Attorney General candidates Sam Houston (D) and Ken Paxton (R)

You probably already know that Texans will be electing a new governor next month. But the absence of Governor Rick Perry from the ballot has had a domino effect on other state-wide offices.

Meaning we'll also be electing new people to all 7 of the top state-wide offices. That includes Attorney General. KUT's All Things Considered host Nathan Bernier and Political Reporter Ben Philpott will help explain what the office does and who's running to be the state's next top lawyer, 

Ben: This office, like many, can take on the personality and priorities of the office holder. Especially, if you've been in that office for more than a decade, like current Attorney General Greg Abbott.

"My job description has been simplified over the past 4 years. Because what I do is I go into the office, I sue the federal government and then I go home," Abbott said at a speech in April. 

He's purposely oversimplifying what his office does, but Julie Parsley says defending the state's laws is a key element.

“The attorney General is really the state’s attorney. He or she defends the state’s laws and constitution. They represent the state and its agencies, which is a very important thing to do. But there’s also a lot of…a myriad of things that they do by state law too," Parsley said.

Parsley served in the AG's office for three years, including time as the state's solicitor general.  She says the AG’s other responsibilities include consumer protection, watching out for things like price gouging during natural disasters, and collecting child support.

But there's one thing some people assume the office does, that it doesn't. The Attorney General is not a crime fighter. Of course that hasn't stopped some AG candidates from playing up the role of crime fighter when running for office.

"Back in the 70’s you would see some candidates running for AG who would be standing in a jail cell and they’d slam the jail door and they’d say, ‘I’m going to put criminals behind bars!’ That’s not, putting criminals behind bars is not their primary job," Parsley said.

There are some exceptions. If a local district attorney has to recuse him or herself from a case, the AG's office will step in to take it over. Or if a local district attorney needs help prosecuting a case, again the AG's office is there to help out.

Oh and unlike other state offices, there are some requirements with this job. You have to be a lawyer and once elected you have to live in Travis County.

Nathan: So who's running to be the next AG to live in Travis County?

Ben: We've got Democrat Sam Houston and Republican Ken Paxton.

Nathan: Wait…did you say Sam Houston? I've heard of that guy.

Ben: Yes, he does have a famous name, Houston is a lawyer who has run for state-wide office before. He tried to get a seat on the State Supreme Court back in 2008.

Houston has talked about returning the office to its core responsibilities, maybe not filing as many lawsuits against the federal government. Although he says he'll absolutely defend Texas and its laws against anyone.

Houston has also picked up a number of newspaper editorial board endorsements. Those endorsements focus on Houston's experience and, maybe more important for this race, his clean legal record.

Nathan: I'm guessing that's in response to a less-than-clean record for his opponent Paxton?

Ben: Yes, Paxton declined to challenge an allegation that he broke state law by failing to register with the State Securities Board. He paid a one-thousand dollar fine and then promptly disappeared from the campaign trail.

Nathan: What do you mean disappeared?

Ben: He has not done interviews, he has not done editorial board meetings, he has barely campaigned in public, other than some speeches before groups that were already voting for him, like Tea Party meetings.

But, this is a Red state, so with that, and the fact that this is a down ballot race, most assume he'll win easily.

Nathan:  You mentioned the fine he paid for not registering with the State Securities Board, is that case over and done?

Ben: No, A complaint has been filed with the Travis County district attorney’s office over the matter. Although the investigation into the complaint, and any decision on whether or not to take the matter to a grand jury, has been postponed until after the election.

In the Dallas Morning News' endorsement of Houston, the editorial board worried electing Paxton would raise, "...the possibility of felony charges against a sitting attorney general, the state’s chief law enforcement officer." The editorial went on to say, "Voters should not invite that kind of embarrassment for Texas."

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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