How a Texas district attorney’s DWI arrest led to a criminal probe of Gov. Rick Perry

May 19

In April 2013, Travis County (Texas) District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for driving while intoxicated. According to this report, she had an open vodka bottle in the car, her blood alcohol level was 0.239 — nearly three times the legal limit in Texas — and she was disruptive and uncooperative after her arrest.  She subsequently entered a plea agreement under which she was to serve 45 days in jail and pay a $4,000 fine, although it appears she may not have complied with all of the plea deal’s terms.  Lehmberg refused to resign from her position and a subsequent effort to have her removed as the DA failed.

Because Lehmberg (D) remained in her job, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) used his line-item veto authority to zero out appropriations for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit, a watchdog that investigates criminal activity in state government, including the governor’s office. Lehmberg, as district attorney, oversees that office. 

“The person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence,” Perry explained.  Yet as detailed in this Wall Street Journal report, some believe Perry’s move was illegal.  Texans for Public Justice claims Perry’s threat to veto the funds amounted to illegal coercion and bribery of a government official, and last month a grand jury was  impaneled to investigate the Governor’s actions.  Another report suggests some of Perry’s staff sought to pressure Lehmberg to resign and may have offered her a job if she would step aside.

Texas legal experts quoted by the Journal believe a criminal indictment of Perry is unlikely.  There is no precedent in Texas for attempting to prosecute a sitting governor for his use of a veto, but there also may not be much precedent for using a line-item veto to force an independently elected government official to resign either.  I would also hope there’s not much precedent for similarly disgraced district attorneys insisting on keeping their jobs.  Were the DWI itself not bad enough, her conduct after her arrest was unacceptable for a public servant. At the very least, she should not keep her job without going back before the voters who elected her. (This is what then-Rep. Phil Gramm (Tex.) did when he switched parties; he resigned his seat and then ran in the special election to fill the vacancy.)

I’ll defer to others on the details of Texas law, but it seems to me criminal prosecution would be inappropriate even if it were shown that Perry sought to use his veto authority to force Lehmberg’s resignation.  Governor’s with line-item veto authority use it for political purposes all the time.  If the Perry misused his veto authority in this case, it seems to me that the proper remedy would be impeachment.  There is precedent for that in Texas, though I would think it’s unlikely here.  Unless there’s much more to the story — and there may be — I doubt Texas voters will be that upset about Perry’s use of the veto to punish a DA who had shown herself to be unfit for the job.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation. He clerked for Judge David B. Sentelle on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and is a Senior Fellow at the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana. Follow: @jadler1969
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Jonathan H. Adler | May 19