New Judge for DeLay Case Enters Political Arena

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A new judge has been appointed to preside over Rep. Tom DeLay's campaign finance trial after two judges stepped away from their involvement in the case because of their own political contributions.

But judicial wrangling left the validity of Thursday's appointment of semiretired Senior Judge Pat Priest (search) of San Antonio in question.

All eyes Friday were on Democratic District Attorney Ronnie Earle (search) to see whether he would challenge the appointment of Priest, a Democrat. Earle's spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment.

Priest was selected to replace District Judge Bob Perkins (search), who was removed Tuesday at DeLay's request because of his contributions to Democrats.

Republican Administrative Judge B.B. Schraub (search) had been named to select a new presiding judge after Perkins was removed, but he withdrew Thursday at the request of Earle because of his political contributions to GOP candidates.

Schraub then asked state Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson (search) to name the new judge, and Jefferson selected Priest.

But moments later, the district attorney asked that Jefferson, too, withdraw from the process.

Jefferson's 2002 campaign treasurer, Bill Ceverha, was treasurer of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, according to state documents examined by The Associated Press.

The PAC is a co-defendant in DeLay's case, and Ceverha was a defendant this spring in a civil trial brought by Democrats who lost state legislative races to Republicans in 2002.

Jefferson also was elected to his seat with the help of a $25,000 donation from the Republican National State Elections Committee, a group at the heart of the money laundering charge against DeLay.

He also received $2,000 from a DeLay-run PAC whose executive director is a co-defendant.

Lawyers on both sides in DeLay's case have argued that political contributions by judges have harmed at least the appearance of impartiality. But in a state where judges are elected and free to contribute to candidates and political parties, it could be a challenge to find a judge who meets both sides' definition of impartial.

DeLay is charged with illegally funneling corporate campaign contributions to Republican candidates for the 2002 legislative races. The Texas Republican was forced to step down as House majority leader after being indicted.

DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin agreed that the system of electing partisan judges is flawed, but he criticized Earle for setting Thursday's situation in motion.

Earle said Schraub should remove himself because he has given money to GOP candidates including Gov. Rick Perry, an ally in DeLay's successful effort to redraw congressional districts to benefit Republicans.

DeLay's contributions to Texas Republicans helped the GOP win control of the Texas House in 2002. Then, in a series of special sessions called by Perry, the GOP pushed through a redistricting plan crafted by DeLay that helped get more Republicans elected to Congress in 2004.

Prosecutors also suggested that Schraub, 76, appears politically indebted to Perry, who appointed him as administrative judge and can reappoint him in January.

DeLay objected to Perkins, a Democrat, because he has contributed to Democratic candidates such as John Kerry and the liberal advocacy group

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."