State's Top Criminal Appeals Court Dismisses Felony Charges Against Former Gov. Perry

Feb 24, 2016

The state's top criminal appeals court has dismissed the felony abuse of power charges against former Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The charges stemmed from Perry's 2013 threat to veto funding for the Travis County District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit, which investigates and prosecutes state corruption cases. A grand jury indicted Perry on charges that he coerced a public official and abused his office when he threatened to veto the funds if Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg did not resign, following a drunk driving conviction.

A lower court had already dismissed the coercion charge, ruling that the law it was based on was unconstitutionally vague. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that dismissal.

As to the abuse of power charge, the court ruled the Governor's veto power cannot be infringed on:

The governor’s power to exercise a veto may not be circumscribed by the Legislature, by the courts, or by district attorneys (who are members of the judicial branch). When the only act that is being prosecuted is a veto, then the prosecution itself violates separation of powers.

Perry appeared for comment at a press conference Wednesday [watch video of the event here]. “I’m proud to say that today the court upheld the rule of law and the fundamental right of any person to speak freely without fear of political interference or legal intimidation."

Perry said the indictment had hung over his second failed run at the GOP presidential nomination last year.

David Botsford, one of Perry's attorneys, called the appeals court's decision "appropriate." 

"The attempt to prosecute the governor for the exercise of his absolute veto power has been held to be unconstitutional by the court of criminal appeals as violative of the separation of the powers clause of the Texas constitution. And the court has also determined that the attempt to prosecute th governor for allegedly threatening to exercise his veto power is also unconstitutional as violative of the first amendment. The rule of law has prevailed, and Governor Perry shall be able to proceed onward with his life unfettered by this misguided prosecution."

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice - the group responsible for the complaint that led to the indictments - said in an email that the dismissal is a gift to Perry from a partisan court:

"This decision is based on who Perry is rather than what he did. This pre-trial ruling ensures that prosecutors never get an opportunity to present the evidence that makes their case in an open courtroom."

Texas GOP Chair Tom Mechler said he wasn't surprised by the court's action. "This was a political witch-hunt crafted by Texas Democrats in Travis County in an attempt to derail [Perry's] presidential bid," Mechler said. "Ultimately the rule of law prevailed." With no felonies to tarnish his record, Mechler said, Perry can maintain his legacy of "the Texas miracle and our first-in-the-nation job growth."

As for whether the appeals court's decision sets a precedent for future governors, Botsford said he's unsure. "I don't know that it sets a precedent for another governor. It probably sets precedent for other prosecutors that might seek to criminalize the political process down the road," he says.