Another Big Step Towards Possible Removal of Texas Judge

February 20, 2009

 

The top judge in Texas criminal courts is facing a closer look into her conduct in a capital case. Judge Sharon Keller of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the subject of proceedings by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for closing her office at 5 p.m. when she knew that an appeal from a death row inmate would arrive within 20 minutes. Earlier this week, a resolution to initiate impeachment proceedings was filed in the state House.

In a notice calling the formal hearing, the commission called Keller’s actions a “willful and persistent falure,” constituting “incompetence in the performance of her duties.” Keller has refused to comment, but her attorney says that she "very much denies these allegations."

“I have never seen anything like this before in 15 or more years of death penalty lawyering,” said University of Texas at Austin adjunct law professor Jim Marcus. “But I have never seen a court closed like this either. This whole incident has been unusual.”

Keller refused to grant lawyers for death row inmate Michael Richards additional time to file last-minute appeal based on recent developments in the U.S. Supreme Court. Having gone home early to meet a repairman, Keller disregarded the attorneys’ computer problems that had delayed the filing of papers.

Just hours after Keller had the courthouse closed at its usual time, Richards was executed. Two days later, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of a Texas convict for exactly those reasons underpinning Richards’s appeal.

The commission’s demand that Keller justify her actions in a public hearing “is rare as can be,” said Larry Fox, former chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Fox added, “A once-in-a-decade event.” This is the first case in Texas history that could result in a public trial and removal of a statewide judge. Observers expect that the case may take up to 18 months to run its course.