AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — One of two felony indictments against former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was tossed out Friday, giving the Republican presidential candidate a potentially huge legal victory in the face of flagging polling numbers for the 2016 race.
The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin sided with Perry's pricy legal team, stating in a 96-page ruling that the charge of coercion of a public servant constituted a violation of the former governor's free speech rights.
Perry, who left office in January, was indicted last August on the coercion charge and a separate charge of abuse of official power, which wasn't affected by the ruling.
For now, he'll still have to face the abuse of power charge — which could tie him up in court and eat into valuable on-the-ground campaigning time in the midst of his White House run. But Perry's lead attorney, Tony Buzbee, downplayed the future significance of the case, just as his client has for months, saying it will have "no impact whatsoever" on the campaign.
"One down, one to go," Buzbee said at a Houston news conference. "The court today threw out what we believe to be the greater of the two charges." He added that the abuse of power charge is "hanging by a thread."
Perry has spent more than $2 million on top defense lawyers — even though his 2016 campaign has raised barely half that much. Despite numerous visits to key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, polls show Perry badly trailing in a crowded field.
He's made just a single court appearance in the case, which stems from 2013, when Perry publicly threatened, and then carried out, a veto of $7.5 million in state funding for public corruption prosecutors. His move came in the wake of the Democrat who headed the investigative unit, District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, rebuffing Perry's calls to resign after she was convicted of drunken driving.
The indictment was handed down by a grand jury in Austin, a liberal bastion in a state that's mostly conservative, leading Perry to characterize the case as a political "witch hunt." Still, his previous — and numerous — attempts to have the Republican trial judge toss the charges on constitutional grounds were rejected, prompting the appeal.
Michael McCrum, the San Antonio-based special prosecutor leading the case, has long maintained it deserves to go to trial. He said he wasn't certain whether he'd appeal Friday's ruling since it affects an underlying statue that will impact many cases, not just Perry's.
"Obviously we're ready to proceed to trial on the other count," McCrum said, though he noted he doesn't yet know when such a trial would begin because Perry can appeal the abuse of power charge to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas' highest criminal court. With that court on summer recess, doing so is "going to cause an extended delay," he said.
"Insofar as the presidential issue is involved," McCrum said "anybody that's considering voting or donating to any candidate, you're not going to get any resolution anytime soon."
Buzbee said he considers the remaining charge nothing more than a misdemeanor and said the Court of Criminal Appeals "will throw it out on its face." The abuse of official capacity nonetheless has a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison, while the voided coercion charge carried a 10-year maximum sentence.
Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice that filed an initial complaint about Perry's veto, noted that Friday's ruling came from Republican judges who could have quashed the whole case. Instead, he said, their decision "leaves a criminal indictment hanging over Perry's head."
Perry's presidential campaign offered no comment beyond what Buzbee said. Perry was in South Carolina on Thursday but didn't have any announced weekend events.