AUSTIN, Texas – A special court of review on Monday dismissed a public reprimand of Texas' top criminal courts judge, who closed her court at 5 p.m., preventing attorneys from filing a last-minute appeal hours before their client was executed.
The disciplinary case against Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller came after she closed the court on Sept. 25, 2007, as attorneys for twice-convicted killer Michael Wayne Richard tried to submit their appeal.
The state Commission on Judicial Conduct issued Keller a "public warning," but the judge appealed, claiming the commission exceeded its authority and violated the state constitution.
In dismissing the reprimand, the court of review said the judicial conduct panel could dismiss the case against Keller, issue a public censure or recommend her removal from office or retirement. The public warning was a sanction not allowed by the state constitution and state law.
The ruling also noted it was not an opinion on the underlying case against Keller.
The court of review noted that a special master first appointed to investigate determined that Richard's lawyers bore "the bulk of fault for what occurred" and did not spend sufficient time preparing his appeal in advance.
The special master also found Keller's conduct to be "not exemplary of a public servant."
"In our view it reached the correct and only result that could be had," said Keller's attorney, Chip Babcock. "She is very relived that this long ordeal is over."
An attorney for the Texas Defender Service, which represented Richard, did not immediately return a telephone message Monday seeking comment.
Scott Cobb, who heads the anti-death penalty group the Texas Moratorium Network, said the court let Keller off "on a technicality."
"It is now up to the Texas Legislature to restore the harm done by Sharon Keller to the integrity of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by impeaching Keller for judicial misconduct," Cobb said in a news release. "The voters of Texas will likely throw her out of office if she decides to run for re-election in 2012, but it would be better for the quality of justice in Texas if the Legislature impeaches and removes her from office".
Richard's lawyers, who were scrambling to file a last minute appeal, said they told Keller they were having computer problems that were preventing them from delivering their appeal. She responded, "We close at 5," and closed the court.
Richard was executed that night for the 1986 rape and slaying of a Harris County nurse at her home.
The 13-member judicial conduct panel could have recommended the Texas Supreme Court remove Keller from the bench, but such action would have been extraordinary. The commission did say her actions amounted to "willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties." It also decided she had cast "public discredit on the judiciary."
Keller, a Republican elected to the court in 2006, is the highest-ranking criminal judge in Texas, presiding over the court of last resort for inmates on death row. Her term expires in 2012.
Keller has been long mocked as "Sharon Killer" for her record on death-penalty cases. Babcock has partly blamed Keller's prosecution in the Richard case on death-penalty opponents who seized the dustup as a chance to finally oust her.