Saturday, October 13, 2007

Statesman bashes Sharon Keller

Austin American-Statesman endorsed Sharon Keller last year when she was running for re-election as the presiding judge of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. But it seems that they've had a change of heart.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has never shown much sympathy toward death row inmates.

Keller and this state’s highest court for criminal cases have a well-earned reputation for tolerating egregious abuses in capital trials and appeals. Their record of indifference to the right to effective defense counsel and for judicial precedent has put them at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court numerous times.

Texas executes more inmates than any other state by far, and too many of those condemned men and women had poor legal representation from the initial trial through the final appeal. Keller’s court has consistently failed in its duty to ensure the integrity of capital trials and death sentences.

One of the most appalling examples of Keller’s judicial philosophy was her refusal to accept an appeal from condemned prisoner Michael Richard on Sept. 25. Keller wouldn’t keep the court open past 5 p.m. to receive Richard’s appeal, and she didn’t inform other judges working late about the request. Richard was executed that night.

That cold-hearted response drew international criticism of Keller and the court. It was particularly outrageous because the U.S. Supreme Court had earlier that day accepted a death penalty appeal challenging the constitutionality of lethal injections, used by Texas and other states.

Last week, Keller’s “We close at 5” response resulted in an ethics complaint filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct by 19 Texas lawyers. The complaint came from some highly respected attorneys, including Austin lawyers James George Jr., Broadus Spivey and Chuck Herring Jr.

They are asking the commission to remove Keller from office, or otherwise discipline her, for violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. The complaints are firmly grounded and the commission should give them careful consideration.

The judicial canons themselves are subjective - judges must preserve the integrity of the judiciary and promote public confidence in judicial integrity, for instance. Most lawyers can argue about that wording as long as they can draw breath.

But whatever the commission decides, it is abundantly clear that Keller and her court have been more concerned with process than justice. They have repeatedly ignored the fundamental right of a defendant to competent counsel. Reporting by the American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell has highlighted the court’s indifference to glaringly inept defense attorneys in capital cases.

Keller’s coldblooded response in the Richard case may have been the last straw that prompted the ethical complaint, but the appeals court has been grating on legal sensibilities for years.

Finally, an important part of the legal community said it has had enough and moved to have Keller disciplined, and possibly removed from the bench. That is an important step in guarding the integrity of criminal justice in Texas.

No comments: