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Monday, April 27, 2009

AP: Lawmaker vows to call for impeachment vote

Lawmaker vows to call for impeachment vote
By JIM VERTUNO Associated Press Writer © 2009 The Associated Press
April 27, 2009, 3:40PM

AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas House lawmaker vowed Monday to try to force an impeachment vote on Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller before the legislative session ends June 1.

Keller, a Republican, is already facing judicial misconduct charges for failing to keep court offices open late the night of Sept. 25, 2007 when Michael Wayne Richard was executed. His lawyers have said that prevented them from filing an appeal.

Her misconduct trial is scheduled for August and could lead to her removal from the bench. But Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, is trying to impeach her before then, hoping lawmakers will force her out.

"This woman should not serve another day," Burnam said.

The House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committee is hearing testimony on Burnam's impeachment resolution Monday night, but he pledged to call for the vote by the full House sometime in the next few weeks regardless of what the panel does.

Burnam's resolution calls for the House to form a panel to investigate Keller for "gross neglect of duty and willing disregard for human life" and to ultimately send the charges to the Senate for a trial.

If the House accepts the articles of impeachment, Keller would be barred from serving on the bench until after her Senate trial, Burnam said.

Keller, who was not expected to testify before the House panel, has said the misconduct charges should be dismissed and that Richard's lawyers are to blame for missing his appeal.

Richard was convicted of the rape and murder of a Houston woman in 1986. Hours before his execution, the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to review the constitutionality of lethal injection in a Kentucky case. Richard's lawyers hoped that would help them delay his case as well.

Although court offices were to close at 5 p.m., Richard's attorneys asked for a 20-minute extension because computer problems were delaying efforts to file a late appeal. When contacted at home by the court's general counsel, Keller said the office should remain closed.

Keller has said she was not told of the computer problem. She said Richard's attorneys should have known how to file late appeals with the judge on duty that night, a process they had used in other cases.

Keller's refusal to keep the court open outraged defense attorneys and civil rights activists. A group of lawyers, including a state lawmaker and a former appellate judge, filed complaints with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, saying Keller had violated Richard's civil rights.

Burnam filed his resolution of impeachment on Feb. 16 and the judicial conduct commission filed formal charges three days later.

Keller's attorney, Chip Babcock, said the August trial is the proper venue for Keller's case.

"It seems to me that the trial is the better place to get all the facts out," Babcock said.

Time is running short for Burnam to get his resolution before the full House. Normal procedures require it first to be approved by the committee and have it scheduled for a floor vote.

Texas has not impeached a state judge since the 1970s when a series of judicial scandals led to ethics reforms. Burnam said his research shows that he can call for an impeachment vote from the entire House without prior committee approval.

Burnam said he'll first wait to see if he's got majority support in the 150-member chamber where Republicans hold a slim 76-74 majority. But he pledged to call a vote before the end of the session regardless of whether he thinks he can prevail.

"I'd rather lose the vote than not have the vote," Burnam said.

Keller has been on the court since 1994. Her term expires in 2012.

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