AUSTIN – A Texas appeals court panel upheld a ruling Wednesday tossing out a felony conspiracy charge against Rep. Tom Delay, the former House majority leader who has become entangled in legal and ethical turmoil in his home state and in the nation's capitol.
While DeLay's team sees the ruling as a victory, the Texas Republican still faces other state charges of money laundering and conspiracy stemming from his efforts in 2002 to finance state legislature races. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, has sought several charges against DeLay in connection to the lawmaker's involvement in state politics, leading to a politically charged atmosphere surrounding the criminal probe.
"The Court of Appeals unanimously held that Ronnie Earle had charged a crime that didn't exist at the time the crime occurred. ... It simply wasn't a crime," DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin said Wednesday after the ruling by the three-judge panel was released.
Reacting to the prospect of an appeal to the state's highest appeals court, DeGuerin said he expects that, too.
"So far he's tried to drag this out as long as possible to inflict as much political damage as possible," DeGuerin said.
"I think Mr. Earle's strategy is to kick him while he's down," DeGuerin added, and said the "as soon as we get a trial, the jury will find Tom DeLay didn't do anything illegal."
Wednesday's ruling was the result of prosecutors' appeal of a December ruling by a lower court judge. The December ruling agreed with DeLay's team, who said the state's conspiracy law did not cover election code violations when DeLay allegedly committed them in 2002. I wasn't until 2003 that the Texas Legislature made the change in the law.
In March, prosecutors asked that the charge to be reinstated. They argued before the three-judge panel of the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals that conspiracy to violate the election code had always been a crime and that the 2003 change merely clarified the law.
In Wednesday's ruling, the appeals court unanimously rejected that argument.
No trial date has been set on the criminal charges in Travis County. Earle's office would review the ruling and had no immediate comment, a spokesman said.
DeLay, who is from Sugar Land, was forced to step down from his majority leader position after his September indictment in Texas, but was able to get a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Despite winning the Republican primary in March, DeLay announced in April that he would not seek re-election to his seat in Congress in November, citing the ongoing criminal probe and an ugly political atmosphere that had surrounded it.
The announcement also followed the latest in a number of plea agreements regarding the ongoing investigation into illegal lobbying practices involving Jack Abramoff and his associates. Tony Rudy, one of DeLay's former staffers, pleaded guilty in March to conspiracy charges while he was working for DeLay.
At the time, DeLay told FOX News that the ongoing criminal probe was among the reasons he was resigning, but dismissed the charges as purely political. DeLay predicted that Earle would get a "pretty good Texas whopping" before the case was concluded.
The charges that DeLay faces in Texas are unrelated to the Abramoff scandal.
FOX News' Molly Hooper and Michael Majchrowitz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.