Court of Criminal Appeals stays ruling that voided Paxton prosecutor pay

Texas' highest criminal court has stepped into the long-running dispute over the prosecutors' pay in the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton, putting on hold a lower court's ruling that voided a six-figure invoice.

Special prosecutors Brian Wice, left, and Kent Schaffer enter the Collin County Courthouse during a pre-trial motion hearing for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, in McKinney, Texas. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News) Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News

Texas' highest criminal court has stepped into the long-running dispute over the prosecutors' pay in the securities fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton, putting on hold a lower-court ruling that voided a six-figure invoice. 

In a decision Monday, the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of an Aug. 21 ruling by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals that had invalidated the $205,000 payment, which covered work going back to January 2016. Last week, the prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse that ruling, calling it a "clear abuse of discretion."

In its order Monday, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors' arguments. 

The Aug. 21 decision had been spurred by a legal challenge to the invoice by Collin County commissioners, who are responsible for approving such payments. The commissioners had said the prosecutors' $300-an-hour rate violated local and state limits on lawyers' fees.

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"We're extremely gratified that, after a thoughtful and careful review of our writ, at least five judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals recognized that we were entitled to a stay of the Fifth Court of Appeals' order," prosecutor Brian Wice said in a statement. "We're cautiously optimistic that the Court will ultimately conclude that the Fifth Court's unwarranted decision to scuttle the fee schedules of over two-thirds of all Texas counties was a clear abuse of discretion."

The prosecutors' pay has been a subject of scrutiny for most of the fraud case against Paxton. Jeff Blackard, a supporter of the attorney general, has repeatedly sought to limit payments to the prosecutors through a series of lawsuits, arguing excessive taxpayer money is going toward the case. The prosecutors have contended that Paxton's side is trying to ultimately defund their efforts.

For more than two years, Paxton has been battling allegations that he misled investors in a company from before his time as the state's top lawyer. Paxton, who has pleaded not guilty, could face up to 99 years in prison if convicted.

Paxton has been cleared in a similar, civil case on the federal level.

In the state's criminal case, Paxton is set to stand trial in December on the less serious of three charges he faces.