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