Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cumbersome Process to be Followed by Commission in Keller Proceedings

Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle explains the process by which the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will proceed in its case charging Sharon Keller with misconduct, incompetence and bringing discredit on the Texas judiciary. The Commission has already said that the process could last 6-18 months. During that time Keller will continue to sit on the bench and continue to disgrace the Texas justice system.

In order to suspend Keller from office, the Texas House should vote to impeach her. According to the Texas Constitution, such a vote would immediately suspend her from office until the Senate holds a trial.

From Casey's article

Considerable work has already been done. The commission, which is made up of six judges from a municipal judge to an appellate judge, two lawyers and five members of the public, had its first of three closed-door hearings on the case last June, after a preliminary investigation by its staff. Keller herself appeared under oath.

“She has been very cooperative,” said Commission Executive Director Seana Willing.
The commission also held closed-door meetings on the matter in August and October. They heard from others involved in the matter, including some of Keller’s colleagues on the court.

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.

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