By STATE REP. LON BURNAM
May 1, 2009
By far, the most profound of powers vested in Texas government is the prerogative to take a human life. The decision to execute an inmate demonstrates the state’s full and ultimate authority. Such a decision should be made judiciously and only in the context of all considerations. Such was not the case with the execution of Michael Richard.
Richard was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. on Sept. 27, 2007. The presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller, was aware of the impending execution. Judge Keller also knew the United States Supreme Court had announced that very morning its intention to hear Baze v. Rees, in which the plaintiffs argued that the method of execution used in Kentucky was unconstitutional. Because Texas uses the same execution method, Richard had strong grounds for an emergency appeal.
Judge Keller and the rest of the Court of Criminal Appeals were informed by General Counsel Edward Marty to anticipate filings by Richard’s lawyers. Richard was represented by lawyers from the Texas Defender Service. Because of a computer breakdown, Richard’s lawyers called the court clerk’s office at 4:45 p.m. to ask that the office be kept open after 5 p.m. so they could file the appeal. Marty called Judge Keller at home for a decision on that issue. She refused. Although a judge assigned to Richard’s case and other members of the court were available at the court, Judge Keller never told them about the request by Richard’s lawyers. Michael Richard was executed at 8:20 p.m. that night.
The Court of Criminal Appeals subsequently granted stays of execution for other inmates based on grounds identical to those Richard’s lawyers sought to present.
In October 2007, I filed a complaint against Judge Keller with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. In December 2008, the commission completed investigating the judge, but withheld its report from the public. On Feb. 16, 2009, I filed House Resolution 480, which calls for Judge Keller’s impeachment and removal from office. Later that week, the commission released its report charging Judge Keller with violating the Texas Constitution and Code of Judicial Conduct.
Last week, a group of 24 national experts on judicial ethics issued a statement that Judge Keller has consistently demonstrated a lack of impartiality in cases involving criminal defendants like Richard that violates their constitutional right to due process of law.
Article XV of the Texas Constitution clearly establishes that the Legislature has the power and responsibility to impeach. Section 4 of that article states that an impeached official is also subject to “indictment, trial and punishment according to law.” The impeachment of Judge Keller would neither pre-empt nor interfere with the commission’s investigation, and the commission’s investigation neither pre-empts nor interferes with impeachment.
Impeachment is a serious process reserved for only the most extreme derelictions of the duties of public office. The Texas Legislature has investigated only four state judges since the state’s Constitution was adopted in 1875; Judge Keller is the fifth.
The taking of human life without due process is an extreme dereliction of duty. For the most trivial of reasons — a narrowly missed deadline — Judge Keller callously dismissed a clearly relevant appeal to spare a man’s life. That’s unacceptable.
Because death penalty cases exemplify the state at the zenith of its power, those who adjudicate these decisions must be held to the highest ethical standards. That’s what the impeachment of Judge Sharon Keller is about — ensuring that those who wield power over life and death have the integrity and sound judgment necessary to make such decisions.
We cannot allow a judge with a self-declared bias against capital defendants to continue deciding execution appeals. The best way to promptly get Judge Keller off the bench is through impeachment. That would avoid an additional 18-month deliberation by the commission during which Judge Keller would continue to make life-or-death decisions.
If the Texas House passes H.R. 480, the speaker would appoint a seven-member committee to investigate Sharon Keller. That committee would then report its findings to the House, and a simple majority would be needed to approve the articles of impeachment. Judge Keller would be immediately barred from serving on the bench until the issue is resolved by a trial in the Texas Senate.
I call on every Texan who values the rule of law to contact their state representatives and urge them to vote for H.R. 480, the resolution calling for the impeachment of Judge Sharon Keller.
Burnam, a Democrat, has represented Texas House District 90 in Fort Worth since 1997.