The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board published a strongly worded editorial yesterday calling for removal of Chief Justice Sharon Keller from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals saying “since she will not face the voters until 2012, the miscarriage of justice perpetrated by Chief Justice Keller can only be remedied by a recommendation by the Judicial Conduct Commission to the Texas Supreme Court that she be removed from office”.
Congratulations to the Houston Chronicle. They failed to call for the death sentence for Kenneth Foster to be commuted to life, while most other major Texas papers wanted his sentence commuted. But now the Chronicle has beaten even the Dallas Morning News in calling for Keller to be removed from office.
Judge Keller let her personal bias in favor of the death penalty trample the right of now-executed prisoner Michael Richard to access the courts and have due process. In doing so, she abdicated her role as the state’s chief criminal justice to become its chief executioner.
As laid out in a complaint to Texas’ State Commission on Judicial Conduct signed by 20 distinguished Texas attorneys, including Houston’s Dick DeGuerin and University of Houston Law Center professor Michael Olivas, Judge Keller’s actions were legally inexcusable. The plot line could be straight from a Law and Order episode, with the twist that in this case it was the justice who committed the injustice.
After the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection, attorneys for Richard, a convicted murderer, had less than a day to craft an appeal for a stay of execution pending resolution of the issue before the high court. A ruling by the Texas court was necessary before the U.S. Supreme Court could consider his appeal.
Because of computer problems, Richard’s lawyers requested that the Court of Criminal Appeals remain open past 5 p.m. to take the last-minute appeal. The judge assigned to the case, Cheryl Johnson, and two other judges had stayed late, anticipating that an appeal might be forthcoming before the execution scheduled later that evening. Without informing them of her decision, Judge Keller refused to allow the appeal to be filed after 5 p.m. Richard was executed hours later.
Even Keller’s court colleagues expressed dismay at her actions. Justice Johnson was quoted in the complaint as angry, because “if I’m in charge of the execution, I ought to have known about these things, and I ought to have been asked whether I was willing to stay late and accept those filings.” She indicated she would have accepted the brief, “because this is a death case.” Justice Paul Womack told the Chronicle he waited in his office till 7 p.m. because “it was reasonable to expect an effort would be made in some haste in light of the Supreme Court. I wanted to be sure to be available in case it was raised.”
Justice Keller’s response to the uproar was that the lawyers should have filed the appeal on time. After all, she said, “they had all day.” When an irreversible action like an execution is only hours away from occurring, Keller’s adherence to a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. justice schedule is mind boggling. Civil judges are available at all hours to sign temporary restraining orders as are criminal judges to approve search warrants. Yet in the taking of a life, the most profound action a judge will ever be involved in, Keller wants to stick to banker’s hours.