Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sharon Keller is Texas' Judge Dread

The Dallas Observer has a long front page article this week entitled "Sharon Keller is Texas' Judge Dread". It contains a quote from the daughter of Marguerite Dixon, the woman Michael Richard was convicted of murdering 20 years ago: "It sounded to me like she was just being arbitrary," says Celeste Dixon. "She had a chance to at least hear the arguments, and she chose to take her powers as a judge and make a decision without any thought."


Keller's decision to close her court at 5 p.m.—a move that has since been blasted by even her Republican colleagues—violated the court's unwritten policies for handling executions. It also broke sharply from tradition. In Texas, it's not unusual for judges and clerks to take last-minute pleadings at their homes. On execution day, the courts don't have a strict closing time.

Keller's actions also defied the Supreme Court decision from that day, which has resulted in an unofficial nationwide moratorium on capital punishment. Maybe she didn't make an intentional end run around the highest court in the land, but that was the effect. To be more blunt, the effect was to kill a man months before his execution would have proceeded, assuming the Supreme Court would have allowed it at all. To date, Richard is the last U.S. inmate put to death.

A collection of activists have since decried Keller's actions. Protesters have gathered outside her North Austin mansion carrying clocks set to 5:00. A band called Possumhead, fronted by an Austin lawyer, recorded a grungy song with the blunt refrain "Sharon is a killer, a really lethal killer." Meanwhile, a like-minded blog named, already in operation after some of the judge's past mishaps, includes a series of fake personal entries: "Maybe I should sell and move back to Dallas and help out at Dad's hamburger stand before my house becomes a stop on one of those Duck bus tours of Austin," the fake judge writes. "Tomorrow is Halloween and I'm going as myself, boo."

While the real Keller has made other baffling decisions and public statements over the years, her latest actions have stirred an epic backlash that extends far beyond the protests of anti-death-penalty activists. She's been mocked in Newsweek, scolded by The Dallas Morning News and asked to step down by the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly. Powerful, prominent attorneys, including a former head of the State Bar of Texas, have filed official complaints against her and lambasted the judge to anyone with a notebook or microphone.

"It's hard to imagine anything she could have done that could have been worse than this," says Michol O'Connor, a retired appellate judge in Houston. "I think she should be removed. I wouldn't trust any decision she could make after this. This is such a fundamental issue—the right to get a piece of paper in court—how can we trust her on more complicated issues?"
Texas Moratorium Network has filed a complaint against Keller co-signed by more than 1800 people. We have received two letters from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct acknowledging that they received our complaint and some additional materials we sent them, including a copy of the newly written down rules of execution day procedures of the Court of Criminal Appeals that we obtained through a public information request.

One well-qualified Democrat is running for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals this year. Keller is not on the ballot, but Susan Strawn is running for Place 3 on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Capitol Annex has a mini profile of Susan Strawn:
From 1997-1999, Strawn served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in Denver, Colorado, where she handled complex economic crimes, including mail and wire fraud and money laundering.

During her litigation career, Strawn received nine awards from the Department of Justice, including two Special Commendation Awards, four Special Achievement Awards and three award promotions.

In 2002, Ms. Strawn was selected to be the U.S. Department of Justice Resident Legal Advisor in post-conflict Kosovo. In that capacity, she was the lead on-the-ground coordinator and implementer of the U.S. government’s judicial and prosecutorial training and reform efforts. She also worked as the Justice liaison to U.S. military intelligence and to a special NATO and international police task force to target ethnic extremism, terrorism, organized crime, corruption, and money laundering. She received the United Nations Peacekeeping medal for her work with the United Nations Civilian Police.
We will see if Keller's unethical conduct provides campaign fodder for Strawn's attempt to become the only Democrat on the CCA.

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