The San Antonio Express-News in its Sunday editorial called the the misconduct charges against Texas Court of Criminal Appeals President Judge Sharon Keller a "welcome development."
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.
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.
The Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey explains the trial process and Sharon Keller's options. "If Keller doesn’t like what these judges decide she can appeal to the state Supreme Court — if her lawyers get their filings in on time."
Keller's actions drew an immediate outcry. Even the most passionate death penalty advocates want the judicial system to operate fairly, and Keller denied Richard reasonable access to the court.
The Hearst Austin Bureau reported that the charges against Keller mark “the first case that could result in a public trial and possible removal of a statewide judge.”
Keller has 15 days to file a response, and the case could lead to trial before a special master, Hearst reported.
While Keller's actions in the Richard case violate our sense of justice, she deserves her day in court on the charges.
Regardless of the outcome, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct deserves kudos for having the courage to act in this situation. Public confidence in the system's ability to police itself should be bolstered by the commission's action.
Based on the evidence it heard during these “informal hearings,” the court could have gone so far as to publicly reprimand Keller. Instead, at least seven members voted in December to initiate a process that could lead to Keller’s removal. Willing cautioned that the vote doesn’t signal that the commission thinks Keller should be removed. It may be that they seek more information that may result from the more adversarial process to come.
It will begin with the appointment of a “special master” by Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the state Supreme Court. The master could be from a district court or an intermediate court.
That judge will conduct in public what will look very much like a civil trial, with John McKetta III, an Austin lawyer who will serve without pay as the lead “prosecutor” for the commission, and a lawyer for Keller putting on witnesses for examination and cross-examination.
The special master will then issue a “finding of facts,” but will not decide Keller’s fate. Instead his or her findings will be returned to the commission, which will hear from both sides and possibly take new evidence in a public hearing, and then retire to decide whether to recommend Keller’s removal. That’s right: recommend.
A judge, it seems, must be judged by judges.
So Chief Justice Jefferson will pick by lot a seven-member “review tribunal” from a pool consisting of one member chosen by each of the state’s 14 intermediate courts of appeal. The first picked will be chairman.
The tribunal will hold yet another hearing and possibly take more new evidence, then decide whether to accept the commission’s recommendation or impose a tougher or more lenient sanction.
If Keller doesn’t like what these judges decide she can appeal to the state Supreme Court — if her lawyers get their filings in on time.