Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday appointed Fort Worth lawyer and former Secretary of State John Scott as interim Texas attorney general, temporarily replacing Ken Paxton, who was suspended as attorney general pending the outcome of an impeachment trial in the state Senate.
Scott previously served as deputy attorney general for civil litigation when Abbott led that office. He has more than 34 years of legal experience and has argued more than 100 cases in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. After leaving the attorney general's office, he was appointed chief operating officer of the state Health and Human Services Commission, overseeing 56,000 employees and a budget of $50 billion.
"John Scott has the background and experience needed to step in as a short-term interim Attorney General during the time the Attorney General has been suspended from duty," Abbott said in a statement. "He served under me in the Texas Attorney General's Office and knows how the Office of the Attorney General operates."
Scott will take leadership of an agency that has been caught up in the turmoil surrounding Paxton, who faces articles of impeachment accusing him of abusing the powers of office to benefit a friend and political donor.
The accusations of misconduct were levied in 2020 by eight former top officials who quit or were fired shortly after taking their concerns about Paxton's behavior to law enforcement. Four of the fired executives filed a whistleblower lawsuit arguing that they were improperly retaliated against by Paxton and his first deputy, Brent Webster. After Paxton was suspended from office, Webster told agency employees that he would be stepping into Paxton's role.
Most recently, six officials and employees took a leave of absence from the agency to help with Paxton's Senate trial. The agency had come under criticism for allowing employees to come to Paxton's defense in the days before and after Paxton was impeached.
Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano and one of the House managers who will present the case against Paxton at the Senate impeachment trial, praised the appointment of Scott, calling him a "trusted and respected conservative."
Scott served as secretary of state from October 2021 to December 2022, and his tenure as the state's chief elections officer received both plaudits and criticism.
Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, some county elections officials praised him for pushing back against voter fraud conspiracy theorists, some of whom personally threatened Scott. And he was adamant that illegal voting was not a serious issue, telling The Texas Tribune that "our elections are more accessible and safer than they've ever been."
Conversely, Scott helped enable some of the voter fraud myths that he battled as secretary of state. Previous to his appointment by Abbott, he briefly represented Donald Trump in one of the former president's dozens of failed challenges to the 2020 election. And Scott later spearheaded audits of elections in four Texas counties that found no serious issues but helped fuel Republican distrust and, ultimately, bills this legislative session that would give the state unprecedented power over elections in Democratic-run Harris County.
In interviews, Scott frequently characterized the audits as simple due diligence, saying radical transparency would restore confidence in the electoral process.
Voting rights groups saw it differently.
"He's supposed to act as an arbiter of truth when it comes to elections," said Alice Huling, senior legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog nonprofit. "It is not sufficient to just throw your hands up and say, ‘I'm not pushing conspiracy theories.'"
As secretary of state, Scott also served in a diplomatic capacity, managing the state's relationship with Mexico, Texas' largest trading partner. With cracking down on illegal immigration a top priority for Abbott, Scott helped negotiate pacts with the governors of Neuvo Leon, Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas to improve border security efforts.
In 1998, Scott gained national notoriety, at least in legal circles, for winning $28 million in an asbestos lawsuit — at the time, the largest jury verdict of its kind in the United States.
After stepping down as secretary of state in December, Scott worked as a lobbyist during the regular legislative session that ended Monday, according to Texas Ethics Commission records. Scott's clients included South Texas College, the anti-abortion group Human Coalition, a New York-based blockchain company and a subsidiary of the health care company Superior HealthPlan.
He stopped lobbying on May 27, the day the House voted to impeach Paxton.
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/31/john-scott-interim-attorney-general/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.