Saturday, July 10, 2010

Texas' Top Criminal Judge Awaits Fate From Conduct Board

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has concluded a hearing looking into the conduct of Judge Sharon Keller. Judge Keller is the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, making her the top criminal judge in the state.

In 2007, Judge Keller refused to have the clerk's office work past 5 p.m. to permit the last minute filing of a stay of execution for Michael Wayne Richard. The stay was not received and Richard was executed.

The Wall Street Journal describes the controversy surrounding the appeal of Richard, a convicted murderer, as beginning with a decision from the U.S. Supreme court on Sept. 25, 2007.

The high court had agreed to hear a separate case involving whether lethal injection, the execution method used in Texas, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court found in Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35(2008), that the three-drug lethal injection method did not violate the Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Richard was due to be executed on September 25, his attorneys at the Texas Defenders Service drafted a stay, citing the new Supreme Court announcement. They planned to file the request with the Court of Criminal Appeals. At about 4:40 p.m., a paralegal at the Texas Defenders Service called a clerk at the court to inquire whether they could file their motion after 5 p.m.

Judge Keller declined to keep the clerk's office open late, according to findings by a special master appointed last year by the Texas Supreme Court. The stay was never received.

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct adjourned without a decision and offered no timetable for a ruling. The 13-member commission is made up of six judges, two attorneys and five public members. The commission cannot remove Keller from the bench, but must forward its recommendation to the Texas Supreme Court. The commission has the authority to publicly censure Keller if they find her conduct worthy of some reprimand.

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