JUDGES AND POLITICS aren't a good mix; partisan election of judges is a bad system. More proof of that arrived last week with the parade of judges who bounced through -- or were bounced from -- the criminal case against former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) over alleged violations of campaign finance law.
The judicial Tilt-a-Whirl started when Mr. DeLay's lawyers sought the removal of the judge assigned to hear the case. District Judge Bob Perkins donated more than $5,000 to Democratic causes in the past four years, including to MoveOn.org, which has helped lead the campaign against Mr. DeLay. Judge Perkins declined to step aside, but a retired judge brought in to decide the matter ruled -- correctly in our view -- that he should be replaced. Given the political volatility of the DeLay indictment and his contention that the case against him is a political vendetta by a Democratic prosecutor, it's important that the judge overseeing the case be as free as possible of any political taint.
But it didn't stop there. The Democratic prosecutor then challenged the Republican judge who had removed Judge Perkins, saying he shouldn't name Judge Perkins's replacement. The Republican judge kicked the matter upstairs, to the state's chief justice, whose Republican ties -- and particular connections to Mr. DeLay -- were even more numerous. Just before the Democratic prosecutor tried to boot him from assigning the case, the chief justice gave it to a retired judge who, though a Democrat, appears acceptable to Mr. DeLay's lawyers.
This is the unavoidable result of a partisan election system that drags judges into the political thicket. Most states have some form of an elected judiciary, but the Texas system is particularly bad: All judges are selected through partisan elections. As then-Chief Justice Tom Phillips, a Republican, said in 2003, "Our partisan, high-dollar judicial selection system has diminished public confidence in our courts, damaged our reputation throughout the country and around the world, and discouraged able lawyers from pursuing a judicial career." The dispute over who will hear the DeLay case is a symptom of a larger problem.