A Kentucky judge Friday ruled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher enjoys immunity while in office and cannot be tried on charges of hiring state workers based on political clout.
But Special Judge David Melcher said Fletcher, the first Republican to lead Kentucky in three decades, could be tried as soon as his term is up in 2007, or if he is impeached by the legislature.
Fletcher, who has said he plans to run for re-election next year, has pleaded not guilty and asked for a dismissal of three misdemeanor counts against him -- official misconduct, conspiracy, and violating a prohibition against political discrimination.
The most serious charge, official misconduct, carries a possible one-year prison sentence and removal from office.
The governor last year granted a blanket pardon to anyone in his administration, except himself, who might be charged in the case. Fourteen others have been indicted by a grand jury and the pardon was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Fletcher is charged with replacing some state employees with Republican loyalists in jobs that by state law are supposed to be free of political interference.
Fletcher has said the case amounted to a politically motivated attack by Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo.
In a statement, Stumbo said he was pleased the governor's motion to dismiss the case was denied. The ruling voided a scheduled Nov. 8 trial date.
"The court's ruling affirms the principle that no person is above the law," Stumbo said.
Some 32,000 state workers are protected from any political meddling, while 4,000 workers do not have that protection.