With early voting in the primary starting on Tuesday, I thought I would remind Republican voters about incumbent Presiding Judge Sharon Keller’s documented controversial decisions and her ethical lapses. And to let them know that this year, they have a solid choice, unlike in 2012 when she was unopposed. Keep that unopposed part in mind.
It’s been more than a decade since Sharon Keller became an international figure in the death penalty debate.
On the afternoon of Sept. 25, 2007, when attorneys for death row inmate Michael Richard asked if they could file an appeal at the court a few minutes past their deadline, Keller, the presiding judge of the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals since 2000, famously insisted “we close at five.” Richard was executed hours later.
The incident earned Keller questions from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and widespread criticism from Texas legislators, ethics experts and the impassioned authors of sharonkiller.com, a website sparked by the incident.
Keller says the controversy is behind her. David Bridges disagrees.
Bridges, a justice on Texas’ 5th District Court of Appeals, is making Keller’s past ethical controversies central to his campaign to unseat her in next year’s Republican primary.
“I have to tell [voters] that she’s had a few lapses in judgment,” Bridges said. “If the voters don’t know who we are and what our backgrounds are, then how do they make a choice?”
For her part, Keller said she is not approaching this election any differently than she did her past races. Elections, she said, are “cleansing” — and voters knew her when they elected her the last time around, rendering any past controversies moot.
“What you’re asking me about are things that happened in the past. In the time since then, the voters have decided to keep me on the court,” Keller said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month. “What’s important now is whether I’m qualified — whether I’m the best candidate for the job.”
So the question is, did the voters really give her a “cleansing” after she was unopposed in the Republican primary and defeated the Democratic opponent in November?
Keller’s past came up in 2012, when she was last up for re-election. But that time around her primary challenger dropped out months before voting began, and in a statewide judicial race in deep-red Texas, even a controversial Republican incumbent is likely to best a Democratic challenger. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, and judicial races rarely draw much attention.
“If she faces a Democrat, the only thing important about her will be the ‘R’ after her name,” said Craig McDonald, the executive director of a watchdog group that filed a complaint against Keller in 2009. “That dynamic may change a little bit in a Republican primary. The race becomes a little more interesting.”
In 2012, Keller won her seat with 55 percent of the vote; the other two incumbents from the Court of Criminal Appeals on the ballot that year, Judges Barbara Parker Hervey and Elsa Alcala, each took 78 percent. Keith Hampton, the Democrat who ran against Keller six years ago and drew 41 percent of the vote, said he is positive that his party affiliation is the only reason he didn’t win.
“The reality is that people don’t flock to the polls to vote for judges,” said Hampton, who doesn’t plan to pursue the seat again next year. “It didn’t matter the individual race. They went in, they punched ‘R,’ they walked out.”
I think that the record is clear that they did not give her a “cleansing”. Running 23 points behind your fellow judges on the ballot is not a “cleansing”, it is a straight ticket disaster for the public. Especially for those citizens that have been convicted of a crime and are appealing to the highest court in Texas for relief. Remember, the Criminal Court of Appeals is the “supreme court” for criminal law, the last refuge for relief in State courts.
The Court of Criminal Appeals is Texas’ highest court for criminal appeals. The presiding judge is as important a judicial post as any in Texas.
The incumbent, Sharon Keller of Austin, has repeatedly exhibited disturbing judicial and ethical conduct. We heartily recommend challenger David Bridges of Rockwall County in this GOP primary.
Bridges, 62, would bring important smarts, experience and temperament to the court, which reviews all death penalty appeals from trial courts and reviews cases from 14 Courts of Appeals across Texas. He’s been a justice of the 5th District Court of Appeals for 21 years. He’s also served as an assistant district attorney and senior disciplinary counsel for the State Bar of Texas.
Bridges is board certified in both criminal and criminal appellate law.
Keller, by contrast, has presided over a series of chilling decisions that call into question the court’s dedication to justice. There was the infamous “we close at 5” comment that shut down a last-minute execution appeal years ago; also her refusal to grant a new trial to Roy Criner in a rape case despite DNA evidence suggesting he did not commit the crime. (Criner ultimately received a gubernatorial pardon.) More recently, Keller, 64, was fined $100,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to disclose over $2 million in assets.
Bridges offers a sharp contrast. His record is conservative, his temperament judicial, his sense of justice profound.
From the Texas Tribune on her conduct:
Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the state’s highest criminal court, does not bear the bulk of the blame for the execution of Michael Richard in 2007, according to a review by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. At issue, whether Keller was guilty of judicial misconduct in her handling of Richard’s last minute execution appeal. Richard was put to death after Keller decided not to keep the clerk’s office open for a last-minute appeal from the death row inmate’s attorneys.
The special master, District Court Judge David Berchelmann, finds that all parties – including the Texas Defender Service – were partly at fault, and that Keller’s “conduct … was not exemplary of a public servant”. But the finding of fact does not recommend she be removed from the bench or any further reprimand “beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered,” writes Special Master Berchelmann.
But the worst for me was watching an interview that she did with the Texas Tribune in October 2010, 3 years after she locked the door at 5:00 pm and refused to accept a death penalty appeal. If you go to the 4:52 mark in the interview, you’ll hear her say that the problems with the death penalty in Texas are long gone.
As we know in 2018, that is far from the truth. And it is scary that the Presiding Judge of the Criminal Court of Appeals thought it was the truth over 7 years ago.
At the very least, check out her opponent Justice David Bridges. Your conscience will be pleased.