AUSTIN, Texas — The judge in the conspiracy case against Republican Rep. Tom DeLay was removed at the congressman's request Tuesday because of his donations to Democratic candidates and causes.
A semi-retired judge who was called in to hear the dispute, C.W. Bud Duncan, ruled in Delay's favor without comment. A new judge will be appointed to preside over the case against the former House GOP leader.
The ruling came after a hearing in which Delay's attorneys argued that state District Judge Bob Perkins' political donations called his impartiality into question. Perkins, a Democrat, has contributed to candidates such as John Kerry and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
"The public perception of Judge Perkins' activities shows him to be on opposite sides of the political fence than Tom DeLay," defense attorney Dick DeGuerin argued.
Perkins had declined to withdraw from the case, and prosecutor Rick Reed argued at the hearing that DeLay had to prove that a member of the public would have a "reasonable doubt that the judge is impartial" before Perkins could be removed.
"Judges are presumed to be impartial," Reed said.
Perkins did not attend the hearing and did not immediately return a call for comment.
DeLay had no comment as he left the courthouse. Throughout the proceedings, he sat in the front row behind his attorneys with his wife and aides. He often smiled, and occasionally chuckled when Democrats said negative things about him in their testimony.
DeLay's lawyers are also seeking to have the trial moved out of Austin, citing the media attention and noting that Austin, widely perceived as a liberal college town, is "one of the last enclaves of the Democratic Party in Texas."
Judges are elected in Texas and are free to contribute to candidates and political parties. DeLay's lawyers repeatedly said during the hearing that they were not accusing Perkins of doing anything wrong, but that there should not be a public perception of partiality in the case.
The issue has come up for Perkins before. He voluntarily stepped aside in a 1994 case against Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Perkins had made a $300 contribution to Hutchison's opponent. Hutchison, who was also represented by DeGuerin, was ultimately acquitted of misconduct charges.
DeLay was forced to step down as House majority leader after being charged with funneling corporate campaign contributions to GOP candidates for the Texas Legislature. Texas law forbids the direct use of corporate money for campaigning.
Delay's lawyers cited 34 contributions Perkins has made to Democrats since 2000, including donations to Kerry and to MoveOn.org, a group that has waged a campaign against DeLay.
Perkins said that his contributions to MoveOn.org were made before it launched its anti-DeLay campaign. Prosecutors also argued that six of the contributions were wrongly counted twice by DeLay's attorneys.
DeLay's attorneys subpoenaed Perkins to testify, but Duncan did not make him take the stand. Perkins argued that his participation would threaten the public's confidence in the judiciary.
Contributing: Kelley Shannon, Liz Austin