Legal Ethics

A 'Disappointed & Shocked' Top Judge Is Reprimanded for Refusing Execution-Eve Appeal

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The top criminal appeals court judge in Texas was reprimanded today for refusing to accept a late appeal hours before an inmate was executed and hence failing in her duty to maintain open access to the courts.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct found that Presiding Judge Sharon Keller of the state Court of Criminal Appeals engaged in “willful or persistent conduct that casts public discredit on the judiciary or the administration of justice” by neither instructing the court clerk to wait a short time for the appeal filing nor telling the clerk that another judge was assigned to handle last-minute execution appeals that day, according to the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Michael Richard, a convicted rapist and murderer, was put to death later that same evening on Sept. 25, 2007.

Keller’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, says she is “disappointed and shocked” about the reprimand and will challenge it, apparently to the state supreme court, according to the New York Times. He had argued that defense lawyers erred by going to Keller instead of directly to the duty judge for execution-eve appeals.

The commission could have removed Keller from office. However, in reprimanding her with a “public warning” it went beyond the recommendation of a special master, District Judge David Berchelmann Jr., who found after an ethics hearing that Keller should be exonerated even though her conduct “was not exemplary.”

The Focal Point blog of the Austin American Statesman provides a link to the commission’s report (PDF).

Additional coverage: (Feb. 2010): “Ethics Prosecution Blasts Report, Seeks Sanction of Top Texas Judge”

Associated Press: “Top Texas criminal judge warned but keeps job”

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