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Analysis: The Court of Public Opinion, Revisited

High-profile public figures exonerated after prosecutions for violations of state ethics and election laws paved the way for public skepticism about those kinds of cases — like one now pending against Gov. Rick Perry.

Tom DeLay, shown after his trial in 2011. DeLay, who was convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering, was found innocent ...

It has been eight years since Tom DeLay left Congress under a legal cloud.

He has been out of politics and, as of October — when the state’s highest criminal court overturned his conviction on conspiracy and money-laundering — out of legal trouble.

That result, along with the 1994 acquittal of Kay Bailey Hutchison, now a retired U.S. senator, has made it difficult for prosecutors here to win political corruption cases in the court of public opinion.

DeLay, the former majority leader for the U.S. House, helped engineer enough wins in the 2002 elections to put Republicans in charge of the Texas House. Along the way, he attracted the attention and ire of liberals who complained that he had trampled campaign finance and election laws.

He was indicted in 2005, convicted in 2010, and found innocent of all charges by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals earlier this year.

DeLay’s tribulations — as narrated by the lawyers who guided him through the legal briers — were those of an aggressively competitive campaigner who came up against prosecutors who wanted to criminalize hardball politics.

Prosecutors and the partisans who had complained about DeLay told a different tale — that hardball politics is perfectly legal unless the competitors are breaking the law, which they said the Republicans did by swapping unusable political money for cash that could be applied to the campaigns.

When it was all over, it was a mixed bag for the main players.

Tom DeLay kind of hit and kind of missed, getting the redistricting map he wanted, the Republican seats he wanted in the Texas congressional delegation and the Republicans in charge of the U.S. House. But the prosecution that followed brought him down, and he never reaped the benefits himself. His successor in the House leadership, John Boehner, went on to become speaker.

The prosecutors also hit and missed: They brought down DeLay, managing to hound him out of office and to raise the risk of legal retribution for anyone who tried to do the things that he had done to win those elections. But the maps that he helped install were still in place at the end of the brawl. And now, all these years later, what DeLay did was found to not be the sort of thing that would put a person in jail.

The Republican Party won control of the Texas Legislature, of the redistricting maps, and played a crucial part in helping Republicans win a majority in Congress.

The Democrats? They won some battles but lost the war. They lost that first election, which put a Republican majority in place. That Republican majority drew new political maps that make a Democratic majority in the Legislature or the congressional delegation impossible — unless a lot of Texans either move or change their minds and start voting for Democrats or start staying at home and voting for no one at all.

Now he’s just another name gone by, like the people he followed and the people who followed him, from Sam Rayburn to Jim Wright to the five Democrats knocked off by his redistricting map.

Like Hutchison, who was prosecuted in Travis County for using her state office and employees when she was treasurer — back when there was such a thing — for political purposes. Her case went to trial in early 1994. Prosecutors, after failing to win a judge’s assurance that their evidence was admissible, declined to proceed, and Hutchison was acquitted.

She and her lawyers (one of whom later had a major role in DeLay’s case) argued that Travis County’s district attorney was trying to make a criminal case out of ordinary politics.

Her victory made her stronger politically, unlike DeLay, whose political career was wrecked even with the vindication at the end.

But they beat a path for others, like Gov. Rick Perry, who is battling an indictment that followed his veto of state funding for Travis County prosecutions of state cases, including those against public officials. Prosecutors accuse Perry of using his veto power to try to force a locally elected district attorney to resign. His lawyers have argued that this is a case of politics misconstrued as crime.

That sounds familiar.

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