Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle has an opinion column today titled “My thanks to maligned Judge Keller“, in which he thanks Sharon Keller for having inadvertently caused some improvements to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The firestorm of criticism that followed her decision not to keep the clerk’s office open for a late filing, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from earlier in the day, of a man scheduled to be executed an hour after closing time, has produced some improvements.
According to her own testimony and that of other court officials during this week’s four-day trial, the court had a protocol for dealing with execution day filings, but it was something of a secret.
For one thing, it wasn’t written.
For another, the court staff was not given any formal training on it.
Part of the procedure was the appointment, on a rotating basis, of a single judge to whom all communications regarding the pending execution would be directed. But the name of that judge was not to be disclosed to anyone outside the court, including lawyers for the condemned man.
In Keller’s seven years as the court’s chief judge, that was the state of things.
Now, due to the allegations that she violated that procedure by not referring the call seeking to file a late plea for a stay of execution to Judge Cheryl Johnson, the assigned judge for that execution day, everyone knows the procedures.
The court’s judges, some of whom were waiting around in expectation of a filing and were angered to learn days later of Keller’s actions, agreed to put the protocol in writing. And the protocol has been widely publicized in the controversy.
There is another improvement. Ed Marty, the general counsel who took the request to Keller rather than to Johnson (who testified she would have accepted late pleadings), retired.
His replacement, Sian Schilhab, said she contacts the appropriate attorneys days ahead of the prosecution to make sure they know she is available up until the execution takes place. She said she not only gives them her cell phone number, but forwards the office phone to her cell.
She also says all outside communications not only “clearly go to the assigned judge, but I try to communicate them to all the judges, or at least their staffs.”
She said that’s not because of the recent controversies, but because “I believe in more communication rather than less.”
If Keller had instructed Marty to do that, we wouldn’t have had this firestorm.