Political Donations Prompt Removal of DeLay Judge

The judge in the conspiracy case of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is removed because of his donations to Democratic candidates and causes. District Judge Bob Perkins' political donations called his impartiality into question.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Austin the judge hearing the case of Congressman Tom DeLay has been removed. The former House majority leader is facing charges that he conspired with two of his associates to launder corporate campaign contributions. Today DeLay's lawyers argued that the state District Judge Bob Perkins should not preside over the case against the congressman because the judge has made numerous campaign contributions to Democratic candidates and causes. From Austin, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

It was a remarkable day in court. Retired senior Judge C.W. Duncan heard passionate arguments from both Tom DeLay's defense lawyers and Travis County prosecutors about the relative fitness of state District Judge Bob Perkins. In Texas, judges are elected, and it is common for them to give and receive campaign contributions. But DeLay's lead lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, argued that Perkins, in particular, should be disqualified 'cause he'd given numerous contributions to his Democratic colleagues and contributions to MoveOn.org when Kerry was running for president. After more than three hours of testimony, Judge Duncan agreed and removed Perkins from the case. Outside the courtroom, Dick DeGuerin was pleased.

Mr. DICK DeGUERIN (Attorney): Everybody on our team has respect for Judge Perkins. It's not personal. It's not about him. It's about the appearance of impropriety, the appearance that he--a reasonable person would question his impartiality. That's what the statute said. The judge did the right thing.

GOODWYN: For much of the hearing, things did not seem to be going DeGuerin's way. Twice during presentations by defense witnesses, Judge Duncan turned to DeGuerin and said, `This testimony is not helping the court.' When DeGuerin put on the stand John Hill, a former Texas attorney general and judge, who then began to wax philosophically about the many reasons why Judge Perkins should be removed, Duncan stopped and said, `With all due respect, this is not helping me. It's lonely up here. I have to make this decision by myself.'

But while Duncan's remarks may have seemed to be leaning against the defense, he made up his mind to rule in their favor quickly once the hearing was over. DeGuerin used the momentum gained from the decision to press his case that his client is innocent.

Mr. DeGUERIN: And I have to say this. What gets lost in all of the lawyer scrambling around is that there's no crime. There is no crime described by the indictment, so there's no crime committed by Congressman DeLay. And the quicker we can get to a trial and show that, the better off everybody will be.

GOODWYN: Prosecutors countered that Judge Perkins had a spotless reputation, that he was widely respected for his independence and intellectual integrity. And they asserted a broader issue, that judges should not be removed from cases based on their party affiliation or their campaign contributions. But in the end, they failed to win the day. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle was clearly disappointed.

Mr. RONNIE EARLE (Travis County District Attorney): We believe that Judge Perkins, as Representative Terry Keel said, is a remarkably intellectually honest person, and we felt like we had a duty to represent that intellectual honesty and that's what we did.

GOODWYN: Duncan's ruling brings into the spotlight the state's judicial system. Is it just this Democratic judge that shouldn't hear DeLay's case or any judge who's a Democrat and given campaign contributions? Is the only way for the former House majority leader to get a fair trial to have a Republican judge preside? Charles Soechting is the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, and he was a witness in today's hearing.

Mr. CHARLES SOECHTING (Chairman, Texas Democratic Party): I think maybe it starts a conversation that I've said for a long time ought to occur whether or not we continue to elect our judges politically, at least have a conversation about it. Because, you know, if this case gets moved from one county to another or one judge to another depending upon how that judge gives, it could conceivably be up in the air for years to come.

GOODWYN: A new judge will be appointed to hear the case, and that new judge is likely to be from Travis County and a Democrat since all but one judge here are Democrats. The new judge will hear DeLay's lawyer's next motion to move the trial to some other city. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Austin.

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