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The first time Texas Senate convicted a state official, the chaotic trial lasted three weeks

By Jayme Lozano Carver, The Texas Tribune

The first time Texas Senate convicted a state official, the chaotic trial lasted three weeks” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Senate came to order at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 30, 1917 — a half-hour later than the intended start time.

Sen. George William Dayton, a Democrat from Cooke County, rose to say, “I move you, sir, that we resolve ourselves into a High Court of Impeachment.”

And so began the chaotic three-week trial into the matter of James “Pa” Ferguson, governor of Texas.

The charges were stacked — 21 accusations of troubling behavior including misuse of power and misapplication of funds rendering Ferguson “unworthy and no longer fit to exercise the duties incumbent upon” him, the House summarized in its articles of impeachment to the Senate.

This man didn’t deserve to hold office in Texas, members said. In his statements, Ferguson made it a matter of senators’ morality.

“If you brush it aside and say, ‘I will not be bound by the rule of right or wrong,’ that becomes no more a matter with me,” Ferguson argued. “It is a matter with you and your conscience to be settled with you and your god.”

While the evidence seemed clear to members of the Texas House who voted 75-45 to impeach him, the question for the 28 senators, who rose from their desks and took their solemn oath of impartiality, was how to even begin to address such a constitutional crisis of this magnitude.

It’s been more than a century since Ferguson was the first Texas public official to be impeached and convicted of his crimes while he was serving as Texas governor. History is repeating: The Texas House overwhelmingly approved 20 articles of impeachment Saturday against Attorney General Ken Paxton that describe a yearslong pattern of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking.

Now, the intraparty fight that will determine the political future of Paxton heads to the state Senate.

The seismic shockwaves felt throughout the Texas political sphere this week echo Ferguson’s impeachment and removal.

Ferguson’s impeachment and subsequent downfall began in 1916, when Ferguson vetoed appropriations for the University of Texas. The veto was politically motivated, as the institution would not fire certain faculty members whose positions he could later fill how he wanted. There were letters from Ferguson in which he noted a conspiracy against him and demanded either complete cooperation or immediate resignation by a board of regents member. The member eventually relented and resigned.

Impeachment was unfamiliar ground for legislators at the time, and tensions were high. Records from the Texas Legislative Reference Library show the trial was punctuated immediately with points of order. Sen. James McNealus raised the first because the Senate started late and he wanted the record to show it. Parliamentary questions never before asked in the Texas Legislature were up for debate, including whether to read the charges each time the members convened and who was allowed to testify.

Ferguson considered the office his property that was being taken from him without due process. He was uncooperative during the trial, repeatedly declining to answer questions.

“It is not a question of whether I did wrong or not, but whether I have been guilty of an impeachable wrong,” said Ferguson, considered by Texas historians to be one of the greatest orators of his time. “If your conscience does not tell you that I have been guilty of a wrong to a certain degree, and you vote against me, then you have not shown proper respect for the oath which you took to try me impartially.”

Along with misuse of power, Ferguson was charged for misappropriating funds “in utter disregard of the Constitution, the decisions of the courts and his oath of office” by approving payments for personal use. Ferguson, who was a banker from Temple before his political run, was borrowing thousands of dollars from banks in the state including ones in Temple, Littlefield and Amarillo.

In his closing statement, Ferguson claimed the university and the Legislature were targeting him for wanting to put more funds toward rural schools. He shrugged off accountability, saying he was certain of impeachment because of Martin Crane, a former senator, lieutenant governor and attorney general who was overseeing the trial.

“I understand what is coming,” Ferguson said. “It seems in the broad, unequal strife of life, down the stream which I am now sailing, there is a boat named M. M. Crane and upon that boat are managers demanding he earn his money.”

Some senators were also worried about Ferguson’s reaction. Sen. Archibald Robbins voted against one of the charges regarding the UT staffing, saying, “The governor has a right to veto any measure passed by the Legislature.”

In a legal response, Ferguson said some of the accusations against him related to events that happened before he was elected and took office, so he could not legally be impeached for those charges. A representative for Paxton cited the same law in Paxton’s defense earlier this week.

Even when the decision to convict was made, by a vote of 25-3, senators weren’t sure if they should or could remove him from office.

“We are without precedent upon this question in our state and must look, therefore, for precedent to other states and to Congress in the matter,” Sen. John Bailey said.

The ruling made Ferguson ineligible to hold elected office again. Ferguson resigned the day before his official conviction. According to historians at UT, Feguson declared the verdict didn’t apply. He tried to run for office two more times and failed.

His wife, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, went on to become Texas’ first female governor. On the campaign trail, she told Texans she’d regularly consult her husband. If she was elected, she said, Texans would get two governors for the price of one.

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