AUSTIN, Texas — 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 high-powered legal team, stating in a 96-page ruling that the charge of coercion of a public servant essentially constituted a violation of the former governor's free speech rights.
Perry 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, at least, 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 downplayed the future significance of the case, just as his client has for months: "The remaining charge is hanging by a thread."
"We are confident that once it is put before the court," Tony Buzbee said in a statement, "it will be dismissed on its face."
The case 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, Travis County 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 that secured the indictments against Perry, did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday. But he has long maintained that the case is built on evidence — not politics — and deserves to go to trial.
Craig McDonald, the director of the left-leaning watchdog group Texans for Public Justice that filed an initial complaint about Perry's veto, noted the panel of three Republican judges could have quashed the whole case. Instead, he said, their decision "leaves a criminal indictment hanging over Perry's head."
Perry has spent more than $2 million on a defense team, including Buzbee.
"The only remaining count we believe to be a misdemeanor, and the only issue is whether the governor's veto — or any veto in the absence of bribery — can ever be illegal," Buzbee said. "The appeals court made clear that this case was questionable."
McCrum has disputed the defense's claims that the abuse of power charge should constitute a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. The voided coercion charge carried a maximum 10 years in prison, while the abuse of official capacity has a maximum prison sentence of 99 years.
Perry's presidential campaign offered no comment Friday beyond the statement by Buzbee. Perry, who left office in January, was in South Carolina on Thursday but didn't have any announced public events for the weekend.
Despite numerous visits to key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, polls show Perry badly trailing the race's front-runners. He's made a single court appearance in the case, which so far hasn't affected his campaign schedule — though his aides have acknowledged that it could if it continues to drag on.