Texas is operating under an antiquated system that establishes two courts to handle appeals. The State Supreme Court deals with civil matters and the Court of Criminal Appeals handles criminal appeals. It would take a state constitutional amendment to replace the two courts with one supreme court for civil and criminal appeals. The Legislature, however, does have the power to yank the criminal court's budget. It should use that authority to force the court to do its job or put it out of business.
Generally, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court is widely respected. But the Court of Criminal Appeals - also composed of nine elected GOP judges - has embarrassed the state with a series of bad rulings, many of them regarding the death penalty. Recently, the conservative leaning U.S. Supreme Court signaled its frustration with Texas' criminal appeals court when it agreed to hear three Texas death penalty cases in its next term.
By now, many Texans know about some of the rulings that made national news, including the infamous sleeping lawyer case. In that case, the criminal appeals court judges saw nothing wrong with a defense lawyer who slept through key portions of his client's capital murder trial.
The same court said OK to prosecutors who hid evidence from defense lawyers in several capital murder cases involving indigent defendants.
And it gave thumbs up to racial gerrymandering of a jury by Dallas prosecutors years ago in another capital murder case.
This week, we learned about more disturbing practices that probably are costing people their lives. For years, the court has permitted lawyers to submit sloppy, erroneous and inferior work in death penalty appeals. In a system in which almost anything passes as a writ of habeas corpus to appeal a death sentence, it is very possible that innocent people have been - and will be - put to death.
Grits has argued before that the right answer is to elect better judges. I won't dispute that, but the way I see it, we're not going to have competitive elections for a bottom-rung state race like this until the top tier is truly competitive. It's nice to believe that a real judge could have beaten Sharon Keller this go round, but I just don't see how that could have happened in an environment where the Democratic candidates for Governor and Senator had to beg for table scraps. I'll change my mind if Bill Moody knocks off - or even comes close to knocking off - Don Willet, but beyond that it's (sadly) a little too wishful for me. I'll say this, though - I think Burka has a point when he says that holding the primaries in August instead of March would generally make for a more competitive landscape overall. Maybe with a little more time to see what the national and statewide picture looked like we'd have gotten more than one non-perennial, non-Libertarian challenger to these jokers. Alas, we'll never know.Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 07, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack