Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dallas Morning News: "Judge Keller shouldn't get a pass"

Last week, the San Antonio Express-News called for Judge Sharon Keller's removal from office. Now, the Dallas Morning News has become the second newspaper to call for a harsher punishment than was recommended by the special master Judge David Berchelmann, Jr.
On this we agree with a special master's finding on Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: She could have and should have done more to make clear her court's willingness to receive last-minute pleas before a September 2007 execution.

On this we disagree with the special master: that public humiliation Keller has endured since the celebrated fiasco is punishment enough.

Yet that's what state District Judge David A. Berchelmann Jr. is recommending to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct – essentially to let bygones be bygones, despite a royal screw-up.

Instead, when it acts on the Berchelmann report, the commission should focus on the communication breakdowns within the court and the key finding that Keller's conduct "was not exemplary of a public servant."

That degree of failure in a death penalty case merits an official reprimand by the commission, and we hope that's the way the last chapter is written in this judicial comedy of errors.

Let's set the scene from that evening of Sept. 25, 2007, as documented in a trial before Berchelmann last year: The life of convicted murderer Michael Richard was at stake, and appellate attorneys were working on an appeal that probably would not be ready until after regular business hours.

Yet confusion reigned among frontline staffers in the state's highest criminal court over the significance of "closing time" and whether court personnel could or would accept that appeal after 5 p.m.

Representatives of the attorneys got the message "We close at 5," even though a duty judge could have handled the matter. The lawyer for the Court of Appeals reached Keller at home for a clarification, but her involvement may very well have added to the fog.

Said the special master's report: "Judge Keller certainly did not exhibit a model of open communication."

Texans deserve better out of the top criminal appeals judge, especially in light of the state's nation-leading record on capital punishment, including more than 200 executions since Keller became presiding judge in 2001. It's a grisly business and one that demands everyone be alert until the executioner's needle goes in the arm of the condemned.

Berchelmann didn't let the appellate attorneys off the hook, suggesting they should have been smart enough or experienced enough to find a last-minute workaround in light of their tardy filing. The report contends they bear "the bulk of fault," as if that calculation helps us grapple with the matter at hand – Keller's leadership on the court.

Since the Richard case, her court has written down – for the first time – procedures to be followed in the hours before an execution nears. That in itself appears to be an admission that the court fell short in the Richard affair.

The judicial commission could find that Keller's shortcomings are so egregious to justify her removal from office, but that's not the way the proceedings seem to be headed. In any case, voters will have the chance to decide the question in two years

Sign the petition to remove Judge Sharon Keller from office.

You can view the signatures by clicking here.

In addition to signing the petition, contact the State Commission on Judicial Conduct by phone or email and tell them not to let Sharon Keller off the hook. The Republican judge at her trial has recommended that she not be further punished, but the state commission can still punish her for saying "we close at 5" and refusing to accept a late appeal on the day of a person's execution.

Send an email to: seana.willing@scjc.state.tx.us.

In polite, professional language, tell Executive Director Ms Willing that Sharon Keller has brought discredit on the Texas judiciary and if they let Keller off the hook, the discredit will only get worse. Restore Integrity, Remove Keller, at least punish her with a formal reprimand.


Your communication to the State Commission will serve as support that Keller has discredited the Texas judiciary.

You can call, but they only answer the phone during business hours.

State Commission on Judicial Conduct • P. O. Box 12265 • Austin, TX 78711 Telephone: (512) 463-5533 • Toll Free: (877) 228-5750 • Fax: (512) 463-0511 • TDD: (800)-RELAY-TX

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