In theory, our legal system affords equal access to justice. But, as George Orwell offers in Animal Farm, some of us are more equal than others, and Tom DeLay is, in Texas politics, the most equal of all. Texas courts, which are notoriously political, are packed with Republicans who owe their careers to Tom DeLay, directly or indirectly. That makes the justice dealt out in the DeLay case justice without equal.
DeLay is now facing trial in Austin on charges of money-laundering. But his case has been bottled up by an appeals court dominated by Republicans. Ronnie Earle, a legendary prosecutor who has taken down far more Democrats than Republicans in his day, had hoped to end his career with this trial–but DeLay’s fellow Republicans insured that this would not happen. They waited patiently for Earle to retire and then handed down a preliminary ruling. The Republican judges find no reason why one of their colleagues who, before coming on the bench, said the DeLay prosecution was “politically motivated” could not then rule on the case. That reflects a novel understanding of the canons of judicial ethics, which–at least in places other than Texas–require that a judge handle his matters impartially. When a judge expresses an opinion on the merits of a case before it comes to him, that is prejudgment. It disqualifies him from participating in the case. Why this extraordinary departure from settled rules of judicial ethics? It appears that with one Republican recused, the court would have a tie vote, and DeLay would be denied the deus ex machina he is waiting for: a court ruling that the prosecution’s case is fatally defective.
As the Houston Chronicle reports today, the Republican majority on the court even blocked the two Democratic justices from filing dissenting opinions.
Texas was once famous for Judge Roy Bean, who following various homicides and petty offenses established himself as the “law west of the Pecos.” Bean’s first act in judicial office was to shoot up the saloon of a Jewish competitor. Now Texas is home to Tulia, where in the governorship of George W. Bush forty African Americans were arrested on bogus drug charges by a racist cop, and it’s the state that sent Alberto Gonzales to Washington as attorney general. Its notions of justice are transparent from cases like the DeLay prosecution, in which we get a glimpse of the most ferociously partisan judges in the country. Did Reconstruction end too soon?