February 19, 2009
New York Times
Investigating Judge Keller

Sharon Keller, a Texas appellate court judge, made headlines in 2007 when she was reported to have ordered the court clerk’s office to close promptly at 5 p.m., preventing a death-row inmate from filing an emergency appeal. The inmate was executed. A Texas legislator is now trying to impeach Judge Keller for dereliction of duty in that case. A legislative inquiry is long overdue.

On Sept. 25, 2007, lawyers for Michael Richard were at work on a motion to stay their client’s execution. Earlier that day, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would consider the constitutionality of lethal injection. The lawyers were seeking to have Mr. Richard’s execution, which was to be by lethal injection, put off until the Supreme Court issued its ruling.

According to press accounts, Mr. Richard’s lawyers called the court late that afternoon to say they were having computer problems and requested that the clerk’s office stay open 20 minutes past its usual closing time. According to these accounts, Judge Keller denied the request. Mr. Richard was put to death that evening.

Judge Keller has been quoted saying that Mr. Richard’s lawyers did not give a reason for wanting the delay, and that she simply stated that the court closes at 5 p.m.

The case prompted widespread outrage. A group of lawyers filed a complaint with Texas’s State Commission on Judicial Conduct, but more than a year later, the commission, inexcusably, still has not taken any public action. This week, State Representative Lon Burnam introduced an impeachment resolution against Judge Keller, accusing her of “gross neglect of duty” and “willful disregard for human life.”

If the facts are as reported, Judge Keller should be removed from the bench. It would show monumental callousness, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of justice, for a judge to think that a brief delay in closing a court office should take precedence over a motion that raises constitutional objections to an execution. If the facts have been misreported, the impeachment process would allow Judge Keller to set the record straight.

Impeaching a judge is not a step a legislature should take lightly. It is important that judges be insulated from political pressures so they have the independence necessary to administer justice fairly. But judges cannot be allowed to use their extraordinary discretion to deny litigants the fundamentals of due process. That is especially true if the stakes are literally life or death.

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