AUSTIN, Texas – A Republican jurist removed himself Thursday from selecting the judge to oversee Rep. Tom DeLay's trial and handed that job to the Texas Supreme Court chief justice, whose former campaign treasurer has ties to DeLay's indicted political committee.
Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, a Republican, assigned the case to semi-retired Senior Judge Pat Priest (search) of San Antonio to oversee the case.
Two days after DeLay won a fight to get a new judge in his case, prosecutors succeeded in getting administrative Judge B.B. Schraub (search) to remove himself from the case. Schraub was charged with selecting a new judge for DeLay's conspiracy and money laundering trial.
Schraub referred the matter to Jefferson, a Republican whose campaign treasurer in 2002 was Bill Ceverha, also the treasurer of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, according to state documents examined by The Associated Press.
Ceverha was a defendant this spring in a civil trial brought by Democrats who lost state legislative races to Republicans in 2002.
DeLay and his PAC helped engineer those 2002 GOP victories to give their party a majority in the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction.
In Texas, state judges are elected and run for office in the party system. DeLay's case has opened the door for criticism of that system.
The judicial wrangling is "a great shame," said Charles Silver, a legal ethics professor at the University of Texas Law School.
"It says that the judges who we elect can't be trusted to apply the law neutrally in cases that in some way, shape or form bear on their political beliefs," Silver said. "If that's true, we really need to revamp the whole system."
Most state judges in the U.S. are elected, Silver said.
Jefferson, first appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by Republican Gov. Rick Perry (search) in 2001, won election to the seat in November 2002.
State district Judge Bob Perkins (search), a Democrat, was removed from DeLay's case Tuesday after DeLay's legal team cast doubt on Perkins' ability to judge the case fairly because of more than $5,000 in contributions he's made to Democrats.
Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle (search) said in his motion filed Thursday that Schraub has made more than $5,000 in contributions to Republican candidates, including Perry, a DeLay ally, which Earle said calls into question Schraub's impartiality.
Prosecutors had asked for Schraub to recuse himself or appoint another judge to take his place. The motion said Schraub could ask Perry to appoint the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to assign a judge to conduct a hearing on the motion.
One campaign finance watchdog group called the developments a "recusal merry-go-round."
"DeLay has inserted his trademark partisan politics into the criminal courts, igniting a farcical process that undermines public confidence in the judicial system," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice.
DeLay, 58, and two associates have been accused of funneling corporate donations from a DeLay-founded political committee in Texas to the Republican National Committee, which sent the money back to GOP legislative candidates in Texas. Texas law forbids the direct use of corporate money for campaigning.
The alleged scheme was part of a plan DeLay helped set in motion to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections. The Republican Legislature then adopted a DeLay-backed congressional voting district map.
DeLay, Perry called lawmakers back for three special sessions in 2003 to tackle the contentious redistricting map, despite vehement opposition from Democrats, who staged two out-of-state walkouts to halt progress.
In the end, DeLay brokered a redistricting agreement, visiting the state Capitol and shuttling back and forth between the House, Senate and Perry's office.
"Governor Perry was a major figure in the redistricting effort that the (DeLay) successfully argued," Earle said in his motion. "Because Judge Schraub has donated to Governor Perry, he has disclosed through this free speech that he agrees in principle with Perry's agenda regarding Tom DeLay's redistricting map."
Prosecutors also suggest an appearance of Schraub's political indebtedness to Perry, who appointed him as administrative judge and has authority to reappoint him again in January.
Still, Earle wrote that prosecutors believe Schraub to be "completely fair and impartial, with a sterling reputation of honesty and integrity.
"However, as the recusal of Judge Perkins reflected, such is unfortunately no longer the standard in our state for the judiciary," he said.