Appeals court race highlights statewide campaigns
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — In 2010, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller faced discipline for closing the courthouse just as a death row inmate was trying to file an appeal, and she was fined $100,000 for not disclosing more than $2 million in property and income on her personal financial statements.
The discipline in the death penalty case was later tossed on appeal, and Keller has appealed the ethics fine. But it's those blemishes on the Republican's career that Democratic defense attorney Keith Hampton hopes will propel him to win Keller's seat in November and break the GOP's hold on the state's highest court for criminal cases.
"She's banking on nobody noticing," Hampton said, noting the $100,000 fine remains the largest in the history of the Texas Ethics Commission.
Keller did not respond to repeated telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.
Keller was hauled before the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for ordering the court shut at 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, which lawyers for condemned killer Michael Richard said blocked them from filing a last-minute appeal. Richard was executed that night for the rape and slaying of a Houston-area nurse who had seven children.
Keller faced removal from the bench, but the commission instead issued a "public warning," one of the least severe sanctions at its disposal, while criticizing her for casting "public discredit on the judiciary."
Keller appealed, and got the ruling dismissed by a special court of review, which said the commission had overstepped its legal authority.
In 2010, she said, "''What happened to me shouldn't happen to any judge" and called the "Killer Keller" nickname death penalty opponents have her was hurtful and uncivil.
Hampton says the death penalty case and the ethics fine show a judge who is indifferent to justice in the death penalty, and willing to ignore the law to protect her own finances. Keller filed corrected financial disclosure forms, saying the failure to disclose was merely a mistake.
Keller was first elected in 1994. She had plenty of practice filing the forms, Hampton said.
"I fill out those papers, too," Hampton said. "They go on and on about bonds, stocks and property. I don't know how you miss that."
Hampton is a criminal defense attorney who has appeared for the 9-member court in death penalty cases. He says his experience handling capital punishment cases at every level, from the trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court, give him a unique perspective on the gravity surrounding life-and-death issues before the court.
"The result does matter. Innocence should matter. Guilt should matter. Life or death should not be indifferent," Hampton said.
In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Keller said her critics ignore her work chairing a task force that provides legal aid for the indigent, and another that ensures offenders with mental illness receive proper treatment.