The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct has yet to weigh in on the outrageous behavior of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who refused to take a last-minute death row appeal after the court's 5 p.m. closing time. In response to the complaints of more than 300 Texas lawyers, her colleagues moved swiftly to make sure the shameful episode does not recur.
In an action that took effect immediately, the court installed an instant response system that will allow appeals for stays of execution and other extraordinary legal matters to be sent by e-mail to an on-call duty judge and other members after regular hours. The new system will allow the court to consider matters before hard copies of legal papers are formally filed. Lawyers would be required to do that by 9:30 a.m. the following work day.
Had the system been in effect on Sept. 25, Michael Richard of Harris County would not have been the last person executed by lethal injection before the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a challenge to that form of execution next year. Because of computer problems, Richard's lawyers were not able to file an appeal with the Texas court before closing time, and Keller refused to allow a late filing even though several colleagues remained at the court to hear a last-minute appeal. Richard was executed within hours of the court's closing. The judge assigned the case, Cheryl Johnson, complained that Keller had not notified her of the attempted appeal and that she learned about it from news reports the next day.
A group of Texas attorneys filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, calling for disciplinary action against Keller. The commission could recommend to the Texas Supreme Court that she be removed from office. In a further development this week, the wife of the executed inmate filed a federal lawsuit accusing Keller of violating his due process rights and asking she be prevented from stopping emergency death row appeals from being filed. Marsha Richard also seeks financial damages and court costs.
The members of the Court of Criminal Appeals who supported instituting e-mail filings should be commended for taking a necessary step to restore the image of Texas jurisprudence. That cleansing process will not be complete until the Commission on Judicial Conduct takes strong action to sanction Judge Keller for her reckless abuse of the legal system and a defendant's rights.