Friday, March 27, 2009

If Sharon Keller Wants the State To Pay for Her Lawyer, Let's Give Her a Sleeping Lawyer

Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle has a column on the absurdity of Sharon Keller asking the state of Texas to pay for her highly regarded lawyer of her own choosing, despite the fact that she is not indigent and makes over $150,000 per year in salary, which she is still earning after having been charged with incompetence by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, says the State of Texas is violating her constitutional rights.

We are not paying for an attorney to defend her against charges by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Commission’s charges involve a controversy in which she allegedly rebuffed attempts by lawyers for a condemned man to file a last-minute appeal based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier on the day of his execution.

Keller faces the equivalent of a trial that could result in her removal from the bench.

In a response filed Tuesday, Keller says the charges “are unconstitutional because (Keller) has been denied the right to counsel by the Texas and United States Constitution.”

The response, prepared by her attorney Charles L. Babcock, cites neither the provisions in the constitutions nor in case law supporting such an interpretation, but this taxpayer would be willing to provide an attorney for her.

After all, we provide attorneys for accused criminals.

True, we don’t hire lawyers for accused criminals who make $152,500 a year, as Judge Keller does.

And we provide lawyers only for indigents in danger of losing their freedom or their lives, not simply their jobs like Judge Keller.

And we don’t allow indigent defendants to choose their own free lawyers, particularly the highly regarded likes of Mr. Babcock.

A ruinous legal bill
Keller wants the taxpayers to pick up the “usual and customary fees” of Babcock’s firm, despite the fact that, according to the filing prepared by Babcock, hiring him is to “risk a financially ruinous legal bill to defend against these charges which are without merit.”

The judge should know better, especially in these tough times, than to ask us taxpayers to agree to a lawyer whose usual and customary fees can lead to a ruinous legal bill. However, I personally would be willing to chip in for the kind of lawyers whom Keller has found acceptable for people whose lives were at stake. Lawyers like:

• Robert McGlohon, who was appointed by Keller’s court to represent a death row inmate shortly after the Texas Legislature in 1995 passed a law requiring for the first time that indigent condemned men and women be provided tax-paid attorneys for the automatic habeas corpus appeal.

McGlohon had been a lawyer less than three years, had never even assisted on a death penalty case, and was suffering serious health problems. The appeal he filed was so inadequate that it didn’t raise any issues that are required in habeas filings. McGlohon, apparently aware of his failings, didn’t even file a bill on the case.

When later lawyers filed a competent habeas appeal, Keller joined in the majority in ruling it improper because a defendant got only one shot at the target.

In a dissent, then-Judge Morris Overstreet called the decision “a farce and travesty,” and a federal judge called it “a cynical and reprehensible attempt to expedite petitioner’s execution at the expense of all semblance of fairness and integrity.”

• David K. Chapman, who was also appointed by Keller’s court and also was inexperienced in death penalty cases. The State Bar had suspended him twice before the appointment and once shortly after, but probated the suspensions. He was bipolar and admitted it affected his performance. Among other things, Chapman forfeited his client’s right to take the case into federal court by missing a deadline.

Three fellow judges found the attorney to have been incompetent, but Keller, in the majority, wrote that he must be competent only at the time he was appointed, and the fact the bar gave him probation showed it “still found counsel to be competent to practice law.”

• Any lawyer with serious narcolepsy. Keller has joined in opinions ruling that a sleeping defense lawyer is not necessarily ineffective, including an opinion that suggested it may be a strategy to win sympathy from the jury.

It didn’t work for those late defendants, but maybe it would for Keller.
Mark Bennett also has some comments on Keller on his blog:
Even if Judge Keller were entitled to appointed counsel, she would not be entitled to reasonable counsel of her choice. The State is not required to ‘purchase for an indigent defendant all the assistance that his wealthier counterparts might buy.’” Keller knows this, of course, because she joined in the opinion (Griffith v. State — WPD).

Judge Keller says she’s being forced to choose either to “defend herself pro se or risk a financially ruinous legal bill to defend against these charges which are without merit.” Why Babcock’s bill for defending meritless charges should be ruinous to the millionaire scion of a wealthy Dallas family is a mystery, but if this is a legitimate concern (and it must be, since the Honorable Sharon Keller herself swore to its truth) then Judge Keller might do what the working poor often have to do in criminal cases, and hire the lawyer she can afford rather than the lawyer she wants. The right to effective counsel is not the right to the best possible counsel.

If that idea is too unpalatable to her — if the Greenhill School girl can’t conceive of having anything but the absolute best — she can always fall back on daddy’s money. And if she finds herself too proud to ask daddy Jack for help, there’s one other option. There would be no ethical issue with Chip Babcock helping her for free, if only she were no longer a judge . . . .

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