Burnam says state judge violated duty in death penalty case.
By Chuck Lindell
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Democratic Rep. Lon Burnam said Monday he will employ rarely used rules to try to force the Texas House to vote on impeaching the state's highest criminal judge for her role in a 2007 death penalty case.
Burnam, of Fort Worth, said Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is unfit to continue serving because of her pro-prosecution bias and because she turned away an after-hours appeal by lawyers for death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed later that night.
"She's an embarrassment to the state, she's an embarrassment to the Republican Party, she's an embarrassment to her profession," Burnam said. "She needs to be off the bench."
Keller already faces a special trial on charges, filed by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, that she violated her duty to protect Richard's access to the legal system. The trial, to begin Aug. 17, could determine whether the Republican judge remains on the court she joined in 1995.
Keller's lawyer said she did nothing to warrant removal from office.
"What she did is not a violation of the canons of judicial ethics or any state statute," lawyer Chip Babcock said Monday. "Last election millions of Texans thought she was the superior candidate for office. I don't think impeachment or the commission ought to override the will of the people."
It has been 34 years since an elected Texas official, District Judge O.P. Carrillo of Duval County, was impeached and removed from office for a bogus rental scheme.
Burnam's effort faces an uncertain future in a Republican-run House with heavy workload and less than five weeks remaining in the session. But the Fort Worth Democrat vowed to seek Keller's ouster two ways:
• Via the traditional path — a resolution to create a seven-member House committee to study whether Keller committed "gross neglect of duty" and, if appropriate, refer articles of impeachment to the House. If the articles are accepted, a Senate trial will follow to determine whether Keller should be removed from office. If formed, the committee could work beyond the legislative session's June 1 close, Burnam said.
The House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee was to consider House Resolution 480 in a hearing late Monday, but a vote was not expected.
• If that resolution fails, Burnam said, impeachment can bypass the normal requirement of committee approval before a bill goes to the House floor. The motion must be recognized by House Speaker Joe Straus to proceed, Burnam said.
Eric Opiela, executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, accused Burnam of trying to circumvent procedures established by the Legislature to investigate judges.
Burnam is trying "to make a political spectacle out of an investigation that is working its way through the Judicial Conduct Commission," Opiela said.