DeLay Case Raises Issues about Texas Judicial System
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The trial of Texas Congressman Tom DeLay took some extraordinary turns in Austin this past week. The original judge assigned to the case, one chosen at random, was forced off the case because he was a Democrat who'd contributed to the campaigns of other Democratic politicians. The ruling opened a Pandora's box. Judges in Texas are elected, and it's common for them to give and receive thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. So DeLay's case proceeded to bounce from judge to judge as each jurist's impartiality was questioned and campaign contributions and party affiliations were scrutinized. The situation has many Texans questioning the Lone Star State's legal system. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
It started Tuesday afternoon. That's when retired senior Judge C.W. Duncan decided that state district Judge Bob Perkins, who was assigned to hear the case against Tom DeLay, would not be allowed to preside. The ruling was a blow for Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who'd fought DeLay's motion to remove the judge.
Mr. RONNIE EARLE (District Attorney, Travis County, Texas): We respect the judge's decision. Both sides presented well-thought-out arguments. We believe that Judge Perkins 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: Earle had argued in court that if Texas began to allow judges to be removed because of their party affiliation that there would be no end to it, and to prove his point, on Thursday, Earle filed a motion to have the Republican administrative judge who was supposed to assign a new judge recuse himself. This administrative judge had given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican candidates, including allies of Tom DeLay. So he recused himself. The case was then bounced to the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Wallace Jefferson. His election campaign shared both a treasurer and chief fund-raiser from TRMPAC, Tom DeLay's political action committee, the same one caught up in this criminal indictment, but before Ronnie Earle could demand that the chief justice recuse himself, Jefferson quickly assigned the case to San Antonio Judge Pat Priest. Judge Priest is a Democrat. By day's end, practically every lawyer and judge in Texas was shaking their head.
Mr. KEITH HAMPTON (Attorney): What they're telling me is that I, as a lawyer, should investigate every judge's campaign contributions and point out my client's party affiliation and try to get him removed.
GOODWYN: Keith Hampton is a criminal defense lawyer and the former president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Mr. HAMPTON: You don't get Republican rulings or Democratic rulings. It doesn't come into play that way. It's `I object to that piece of evidence on the basis of this law,' that--no one knows whether a Republican or a Democrat wrote it.
GOODWYN: Hampton says that's been the rule book up to this week, but if criminal defendants are now going to be allowed to challenge the impartiality of the judge based on their campaign contributions, that will usher in a whole new world.
Mr. HAMPTON: A lot of us were joking that, `Boy, all our Democratic clients in Williamson County, all those judges are Republicans and I'm representing liberal Democrats. They can't get a fair trial.'
GOODWYN: But if Keith Hampton and District Attorney Ronnie Earle see a threat to the state's judicial system because of this new injection of partisanship, Tom DeLay's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, does not.
Mr. DICK DeGUERIN (Attorney): My response to Ronnie Earle is, `Relax, Chicken Little. The sky is not falling.' This is a unique case. This is a case that only comes along once a generation.
GOODWYN: DeGuerin says the case against his client is a political witch-hunt and that's why it's important to have a judge whose political record is not too partisan, but what constitutes too partisan when every judge in Texas is elected? DeGuerin believes Texas needs to rethink how its judges get to the bench.
Mr. DeGUERIN: Unfortunately, we have partisan elections for judges. The really good, long-lasting effect that this may have is maybe it'll change the system for the better in that way because this does point up a really big fault of partisan elected judges.
GOODWYN: The next big battle will be whether or not DeLay's trial should be moved out of Austin. DeGuerin says Texas law stipulates that the trial should be held in the former House majority leader's hometown of Sugar Land and that he will argue this point in court.
Mr. DeGUERIN: Travis County is a cesspool of politics. And as long as this case is in Travis County, it's going to be infected by that bacteria.
GOODWYN: There is no date yet for the change-of-venue hearing. The new judge's seat is barely warm.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
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