GOP leaders want another Republican to replace DeLay on the ballot and say state election law allows them to select one because DeLay has moved out of Texas. Democrats sued the Republicans to try to block them from picking a replacement nominee.
DeLay, the former House majority leader who won his primary election in March but resigned June 9, is awaiting trial on money laundering and conspiracy charges connected to the financing of Texas legislative campaigns in 2002 with alleged illegal corporate money.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks heard testimony last week in a daylong trial to determine whether the Republicans should be allowed to choose a nominee to replace DeLay.
DeLay testified that he lives and votes in Virginia and that he has a Virginia driver's license. But lawyers for Texas Democrats pointed out DeLay still owns a Houston-area home, where his wife Christine lives and where DeLay spends time.
The Democrats also argued it couldn't be shown conclusively whether DeLay would be an "inhabitant" of Texas on Election Day on Nov. 7.
Sparks agreed, stating there is no evidence he is ineligible under the U.S. Constitution to serve or that he would be ineligible at the time of the election.
"DeLay was chosen as the Republican nominee by the voters in the Republican primary, and he is still eligible to be the party's nominee," Sparks wrote.
Sparks ruled that Texas Republican Party chair Tina Benkiser cannot declare DeLay ineligible and that the Texas Secretary of State's Office cannot certify any GOP candidate other than DeLay to appear on the ballot.
And even though DeLay resigned from Congress, the judge said DeLay cannot be removed from the ballot unless he formally withdraws as a candidate.
In a statement, DeLay called the judge's decision "ill-advised" and said it is "highly likely that it will be overturned" on appeal.
"This is a strong opinion enforcing the rule of law over the abuses of DeLayism," said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the Democratic Party.
Republican Party attorney Jim Bopp said the party will appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and hopes to have the matter resolved this month.
"I think his ruling throws elections into chaos because it would prevent states from having reasonable procedures to determine the eligibility for candidates for federal office prior to the election," Bopp said.
Democrats want to keep DeLay and his legal troubles on the minds of voters and hope to win his former seat in the 22nd congressional district, where Democrat Nick Lampson is running.
"Now he's on the ballot, now he's off the ballot," said Lampson spokesman Mike Malaise. "We're just campaigning as if we have an opponent."
Republican leaders insist DeLay did not "withdraw from the election, which would prevent the GOP from replacing him. They say Benkiser declared him ineligible because of his move to Alexandria, Va., allowing the party to choose a new nominee.
Democrats contend that GOP officials worked for months to manipulate the election system to ensure that they could hand-pick a new nominee after DeLay's primary. Republicans claim Democrats are trying to "steal" the congressional seat.
Republican precinct chairmen in the four counties that make up the congressional district had begun the process of picking a replacement for DeLay. The candidates included David Wallace, mayor of DeLay's hometown of Sugar Land; Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs; Sugar Land lawyer Tom Campbell, whom DeLay defeated in the March 7 primary; state Sen. Mike Jackson of La Porte; and state Reps. Charlie Howard of Sugar Land and Robert Talton of Pasadena.