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Monday, March 30, 2009

Sharon Keller Has Been Hiding Real Estate Wealth While Asking State to Pay Her Legal Expenses

This may be the final straw that forces Sharon Keller, the discredited presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, to resign, but we hope not. We are looking forward to her public trial to expose the inner workings of the CCA.

According to an AP report in the Austin American-Statesman:

The highest criminal court judge in Texas failed to disclose nearly $2 million in real estate holdings and claimed it would be "financially ruinous" to pay lawyers to fight misconduct charges that could get her removed from the bench.

Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, is seeking dismissal of charges by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she violated her duties in a death penalty case.

The commission says Keller cast "public discredit on the judiciary" for not keeping court offices open after 5 p.m. on the night in 2007 that Michael Wayne Richard was executed. The commission said the closing prevented Richard's lawyers from filing a late appeal that might have saved him from lethal injection a few hours later. Richard raped and murdered a Houston-area woman in 1986.

A sworn statement Keller filed with the Texas Ethics Commission last year did not abide by legal requirements that she disclose her ownership interest in seven residential and commercial properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties, The Dallas Morning News reported Monday. The newspaper said the value of those properties was estimated at $1.9 million.

Among Keller's unlisted properties are two Dallas homes valued together at a little more than $1 million. Keller is listed as sole owner under Sharon Batjer, her married name. She divorced in 1982. Another omission is commercial land next to Keller's Drive-In, a landmark Dallas hamburger restaurant operated since 1965 by the judge's father, Jack.

Keller's filing to the ethics commission listed income of more than $275,000, including her $152,500 salary. County tax records estimated the value of properties she did claim, including her Austin home, at $1 million.

Keller has denied wrongdoing in the Richard case.

When contacted by The Associated Press about the real estate holdings, Keller's office referred comment to her attorney, Chip Babcock, who didn't immediately return a call.

The judge has argued that the misconduct charges violate her constitutional right to counsel because the state refuses to allow Babcock to represent her at taxpayer expense. Babcock said he's willing to represent Keller for almost nothing, but he told the newspaper that the state ethics commission would not clarify whether that was an ethics violation.

Babcock said he had been unaware of the real estate holdings until he was contacted by the Morning News, but said her assets shouldn't affect their position that Keller is entitled to financial relief for her legal help.

Watchdog groups disagreed. Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group that monitors officeholder finances, denounced Keller's omissions as an "extremely outrageous" betrayal of the public trust.

"Is this an insane amount of carelessness year after year, in which case should this person be our highest criminal judge?" he said. "Is it willful hiding of assets, in which case that person probably isn't fit to be our top criminal judge? I don't know."

Keller, a Republican who has been on the court since 1994, filed a 12-page response last week to the charges in the misconduct case. She faulted Richard's attorneys for not finding other means for after-hours appeals. She said they could have tried to contact the other eight judges on the bench or the court's general counsel.

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