The federal judge overseeing the criminal trial of John Edwards will sharply curtail the testimony of a key witness for the defense who could raise doubt about whether the former presidential candidate broke campaign finance laws.
Edwards' lawyers had intended to call former Federal Election Commission Chairman Scott E. Thomas as their first witness Monday morning, but prosecutors objected.
Judge Catherine C. Eagles sent the jury home early so she could listen as Thomas answered questions to preview his intended testimony.
Thomas said it was his opinion that nearly $1 million secretly provided by two campaign donors and used to hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress while he sought the White House in 2008 did not qualify as campaign contributions under existing federal law.
"These are intensely personal, by their very nature," said Thomas, who served on the FEC from 1986 to 2006 after appointments by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "In my view this is a clear-cut case that the payments were not campaign contributions."
Thomas cited past cases before the FEC to back his position, including a $96,000 payment by the parents of former Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada to his mistress that was found not to violate the law.
But the jury will not hear that testimony, which supports the defense position that the secret payments benefiting Edwards' mistress were gifts from his wealthy friends, not political contributions intended to aid his presidential candidacy.
Eagles agreed with prosecutors that Thomas' personal opinions and past FEC rulings are irrelevant to their criminal prosecution of Edwards.
Eagles said she would allow Thomas to take the stand, but she barred nearly all of his expected testimony.
Lead defense lawyer Abbe Lowell appeared incredulous as he asked Eagles for further explanation of her ruling.
Eagles chastised Lowell for what she perceived as his disrespectful tone. "That sounds like you are arguing with me," she said. She reminded Lowell that she was not the judge in the other cases he cited.
The exchange came after 14 days of testimony from prosecution witnesses who recounted the lurid details of the extramarital affair Edwards carried on while his wife struggled against terminal cancer.
He has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations that could put him in prison for 30 years if convicted.