The Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board says in Sunday’s paper that Sharon Keller should not resign, she should be removed after first standing trial because “at trial, the sordid events of Sept. 25 would be aired before Texas and the world. Keller’s cold-blooded and process-centered approach to justice would be on vivid display. A trial would expose Keller’s heartless missteps to a fascinated world.”
That’s not a bad idea. Keller has until March 5 to answer the charges against her made by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Her answer could be “I resign”, but maybe it would be better if she stood trial first.
Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is scheduled to stand trial for her egregious decision to refuse an after-hours appeal from an inmate scheduled to die that evening.
And rightly so. Keller’s decision — made by her alone — was grossly insensitive, unjust and discredited her court in the eyes of the world. The inmate, Michael Richard, was executed Sept. 25, 2007, a few hours after Keller refused his appeal without informing the other judges, including the one assigned to Richard’s case.
Since then, there have been numerous calls for Keller to resign, and a resolution has been introduced in the state Legislature to start impeachment proceedings against her. Last week, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct charged Keller with five counts of violating her duty and discrediting the court in the Richard case.
Facing such withering criticism, Keller, 55, may retire or resign rather than stand trial. She has until March 5 to answer the charges from the commission, and her attorney, Chip Babcock, has said she could win the case on the facts.
Though Keller should be removed from a court widely ridiculed for its heartless approach to justice, a trial is a better way to accomplish that than resignation. At trial, the sordid events of Sept. 25 would be aired before Texas and the world. Keller’s cold-blooded and process-centered approach to justice would be on vivid display.
The all-Republican Court of Criminal Appeals is this state’s court of last resort in criminal cases, and its reputation for rubber-stamping convictions was well-established before Richard’s appeal was rejected. Putting the most important criminal judge in Texas on trial for misconduct is an opportunity to expose the court’s long record of callous and reckless disregard for defendants’ rights.
The allegations against Keller in the judicial conduct commission’s findings are devastating. She and the other judges knew Richard’s attorneys likely would appeal his sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court had said that morning it would hear arguments that death by lethal injection is unconstitutional. Richard was set to die by lethal injection that evening.
Judge Cheryl Johnson had been assigned to the Richard case and was ready to receive an appeal. But his attorneys had computer problems and asked the court’s general counsel, Edward Marty, if they could file their petition a little late.
Keller was at home when Marty called to ask her if the court clerk’s office could remain open after 5 p.m. to receive Richard’s petition. Keller said no. She now says that she told Marty the clerk’s office, not the court, would close at 5 p.m. As if that made a difference.
Keller’s defense is a distinction without a difference. And it perfectly illustrates her focus on process over justice. Keller did not tell the other judges that she refused to accept the appeal nor did she refer Richard’s plea to Judge Johnson. Every one of those missteps and others would be intensely examined in a trial and should result in her removal from office.
This issue has never been about Richard’s guilt or innocence, but about the lack of common decency in refusing his appeal because it would arrive after 5 p.m. Keller should answer for her actions in a public trial.