A civil rights group is asking the state to revoke the law license of a judge who has been a lightning rod in debates over the death penalty.
The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed a grievance Wednesday with the State Bar of Texas against Justice Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying she is unfit to retain her license to practice law. Records show Keller has been licensed since graduating from SMU's law school in 1978.
The group alleges she is untrustworthy and dishonest, citing:
A review by the Texas Ethics Commission that found she failed to disclose several sources of income, as required by law.
Her refusal in 2007 to keep the court open after 5 p.m. at the request of lawyers drafting an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed that evening.
Statements she made in a federal lawsuit filed by Richard's widow that purportedly contradict what she told the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Keller, who recently said she'd seek reelection in 2012, had no comment. Her lawyer, Chip Babcock, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which publicly warned her after investigating her actions on the day Richards was executed, also had no comment.
In April, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Keller a record $100,000 for failing to report stock, honoraria and more than $2.4 million in real estate holdings on her 2007 and 2008 personal financial disclosure statements. Keller filed amended reports with the commission in 2009 after news reports revealed her missing holdings.
In a statement filed with the amended reports, Keller said her father made investments for her and her son without her knowledge.
In 2009, the judicial conduct commission filed misconduct charges against Keller and issued her a “public warning.” The disciplinary body said she brought discredit to the judiciary by closing the court to Richard's appeals in 2007 just hours before he was executed.
In October, a special panel of three Republican judges said the commission issued her the wrong discipline, but the panel did not set aside the commission's misconduct findings.
Richard's widow, Marsha Richard, sued Keller in federal court in Austin in 2007. Keller argued that she acted in her judicial capacity in refusing to keep the courthouse open for Michael Richard's appeal, which made her immune to a lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the case in 2008.
But in front of the judicial conduct commission, Keller claimed she had acted in an administrative capacity, not in a judicial role.
“As the documents included in the grievance demonstrate, Judge Keller's statements before the federal court and her statements to the (conduct) commission were in complete contradiction of each other,” said Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The important thing is she was under oath for both.”
Marsha Richard's lawyer, Randall Kallinen, said Keller wrongly used the two hats to her advantage, and her credibility suffered.
“Judges should not be allowed to argue two opposite positions in two different tribunals to their advantage because it erodes the people's confidence in the judiciary,” Kallinen said. “It contradicts the public's perception of fairness towards all parties regardless of the party's high status.”
Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
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