Retired judge to determine fate of DeLay

    A retired Central Texas judge with a reputation as a non-political mediator will decide who presides over former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s criminal case.

    Bell County Senior Judge C.W. Duncan, 81, was selected to consider DeLay’s request that state district Judge Bob Perkins not oversee his trial on conspiracy and money laundering charges.

    Perkins has contributed money to several Democratic candidates and organizations, including 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry and, a liberal interest group waging a “Fire Tom DeLay” campaign through radio ads.

    DeLay, who is accused of masterminding a political fund-raising scheme that helped put more Republicans in the Texas Legislature and Congress, contends Perkins is too much of a Democrat to give him a fair trial.

    Duncan, also a Democrat, set a Nov. 1 hearing in Austin to listen to arguments before deciding on DeLay’s motion.

    Known to friends as Bud, Duncan was first appointed state district judge in Bell County in 1978 by Democratic Gov. Dolph Briscoe. He was elected to the position in 1980 and again in 1984.

    Friends and colleagues say Duncan is low-key about his politics.

    ”He’s not driven by politics and personality,” said longtime Bell County District Attorney Cappy Eads. “I had Judge Duncan rule for me and rule against me both many times. Even in disagreement, I always felt that he was guided by his interpretation of the law and what he felt was the right thing to do.”

    Since 1989, Duncan has made small contributions to both Democrat and Republican candidates, including $200 to Don Armstrong, a Democrat who lost a bid for the Texas House, and three to Republican John Cornyn’s campaigns for the Texas Supreme Court and later attorney general.

    Colleagues say the judge is too seasoned and independent to bow to the political pressure that might come from a high-profile case like DeLay’s.

    ”He’s not inclined to put up with a lot of courtroom theatrics because he’s heard it all. I’ve never known him to be much of a political animal,” said Mary Harrell, a Killeen criminal defense attorney.

    Since his 1988 retirement, Duncan took senior judge status, which means he serves as a visiting judge in courts around the state. Since he doesn’t have to run for election, he “doesn’t have an ax to grind politically,” Harrell said.

    As president of the Killeen school board for nearly 20 years, Duncan gained a reputation as a mediator who could calmly steer the board through tough issues.

    ”The thing about Judge Duncan, he presided with such … control, he was a calming influence,” said Charles Patterson, a former Killeen superintendent. “His presence and the way he would address people was calming, reassuring and conciliatory.”

    When not overseeing trials, he enjoys the outdoors and driving his old white Ford van. He makes regular trips to Big Bend National Park in West Texas, where he used to navigate the canyons of the Rio Grande in a canoe. He also recently visited China and the Soviet Union.

    Duncan has two children with his wife Katherine, who died almost two years ago. At home, his days start early, usually with a 6 a.m. walk with Andy, a well-trained chocolate Labrador. He ends it much the same way _ an evening walk with Andy, before a brief visit with his friend and neighbor of nearly 60 years, Jack Vernon.

    Vernon, a retired banker who meets Duncan daily for coffee, says he and Duncan “decided long ago that we wouldn’t talk about politics or religion so we wouldn’t argue about it.”

    ”And we still don’t,” said Vernon, who lives across the street from Duncan.

    When the two had coffee on Monday, Duncan didn’t mention that he had been assigned to DeLay’s case, Vernon said. When he read about it in the newspaper Tuesday, Vernon said he called Duncan to scold him for not saying anything, but he wasn’t surprised.