AUSTIN, Texas – A retired Democratic judge was selected Thursday to preside over U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s money-laundering trial, but only after a game of musical benches that led all the way to Texas’ top jurist and raised questions about how elected judges can preside over politically charged cases.

San Antonio criminal District Judge Pat Priest, who hears cases only by special assignment, will take over the DeLay case at the request of Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. But Jefferson’s involvement was questioned, too, based on close political association with people involved in the DeLay case.

When the dust had settled from whirlwind court filings and motions that had little to do with the substance of the charges against the former House majority leader, Priest became the fifth judge to touch the case in two weeks.

In a state that picks its judges by partisan elections, the two sides in the DeLay case have squabbled over whether various judges are too Republican or too Democratic. Some experts said the entire exercise showed how the justice system loses public trust when judges must raise money and run for office under party labels.

“There’s a big underlying problem with judges being identified with political parties,” said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, a Republican who has advocated changing the judicial selection process. “This case is a good reflection of the loss of public confidence that can lead to.”

The case began before state district Judge Bob Perkins of Austin, but DeLay’s attorneys asked for his removal, pointing to the judge’s $5,275 in contributions over five years to Democratic causes and candidates. They were particularly troubled by $200 he gave to the left-wing group MoveOn.org, which has targeted DeLay.

On Tuesday, another retired judge ordered Perkins recused from the case. Then, the decision of who would be the trial judge went to Judge B.B. Schraub, a Republican who handles judicial administrative duties for Central Texas.

On Thursday, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle called upon Schraub to recuse himself because of $5,600 in contributions he had given to Republicans, including $1,500 to Gov. Rick Perry. Perry also appointed him to his administrative post.

The district attorney, pointedly noting that a new standard seemed to be at work for judging judges, argued that because Perry was a key colleague of DeLay’s in the congressional redistricting fight of 2003, the judge was too entangled to handle the case.

“The state wishes to stress that it believes Schraub to be completely fair and impartial, with a sterling reputation of honesty and integrity,” the motion read. “However, as the recusal of Judge Perkins reflected, such is unfortunately no longer the standard in our state for the judiciary.”

Earle said he realized his motion was unprecedented, “but of course, so was recusing a judge based on his political contributions.”

Within hours, Schraub recused himself and punted the case to Jefferson.

A search of campaign contribution reports showed that the chief justice shared the same campaign treasurer and fundraiser – Bill Ceverha and Susan Lilly – for his own 2002 election campaign as Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee.

That group, founded by DeLay, is the group charged with collecting the $190,000 in corporate money that is at the heart of his money laundering case.

DeLay and two of his lieutenants are charged with sending the $190,000 to the Republican National Committee along with a list of Texas GOP House candidates. Within weeks, seven statehouse candidates received $190,000 from the national party. It is illegal in Texas to use corporate or union money for political campaigns.

In addition, DeLay’s committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, donated $2,000 to Jefferson’s election campaign in October 2002, the same time frame of the allegedly illegal activity.

Osler McCarthy, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, said that Jefferson would have no comment on the political connections. And while Jefferson acted quickly in assigning the case to Priest, Earle filed a motion, apparently belatedly, arguing that the justice should recuse himself, too.

Earle had wanted the case assigned to a judge in Travis County, where the charges were brought.

Priest, 64, has made political contributions as well. Last year he provided a total of $600 to three Democratic state representatives from San Antonio, state records show.

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Priest was an elected judge from 1980 to 1994 and has taught at St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio.

Phillips said finding a judge to try a case with a hard-edged political basis will always be difficult.

“In this particular case, since we’re only talking about contributions, it might not be a matter of who is nonpartisan enough, but who is poor enough not to have made any contributions,” Phillips said.

He said he had confidence in Jefferson, who he described as particularly nonpolitical, and who has a strong reputation for fairness.

“To me, the more difficult question is just the daily erosion of public confidence when judges become too politicized,” Phillips said.



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AP-NY-11-03-05 2055EST


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