Texas' highest criminal court ruled on Wednesday that the state's attorney general does not have the authority, with a few rare exceptions, to independently prosecute criminal cases, including voter fraud, in trial courts.

“Absent the consent and deputization order of a local prosecutor or the request of a district or county attorney for assistance, the Attorney General has no authority to independently prosecute criminal cases in trial courts,” the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said in a 8-1 ruling. 

The conservative court ruled the Texas legislature only gave the attorney general the ability to prosecute certain offenses, which still required the consent from a local or county attorney.

“The Legislature did not grant the authority of the Attorney General to prosecute just any tampering offense, only a small class of cases involving the state Medicaid program. And even in that subset of cases, the consent (through a deputization order) of the local district or county attorney is required,” the court wrote.

“The Attorney General may prosecute only Medicaid fraud, and not election law related cases” under the Texas Penal Code that are related to tampering with government records, it determined.

The decision comes in the case of Zena Collins Stephens, a sheriff from Jefferson County who was prosecuted by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) after the FBI learned of information “regarding potential campaign-finance violations,” according to a court filing.

The FBI’s information was turned over to the Texas Rangers whose “investigation concluded that Stephens received individual cash campaign contributions in excess of $100.” 

Paxton ultimately prosecuted the sheriff, and Stephens was charged with three counts, including one count of tampering with a government record and two counts of unlawfully making or accepting a contribution, which was over $100 from two different people, according to the court filing.

Paxton slammed the decision in a tweet on Wednesday, calling it “devastating.”

“Now, thanks to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals, Soros-funded district attorneys will have sole power to decide whether election fraud has occurred in Texas,” he wrote.

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