This post does not directly involve personal injury clients and Social Security disability claimants, but to me is an indication of the trend in Texas for all appellate justices to be further and further removed from any concern for common citizens of our state. Years and years of governance by Rick Perry has produced, through appointment or support, an extremely uncompassionate set of justices.
The gist of the story behind these articles is the fact that the chief justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Justice Sharon Keller, refused to keep the court open past 5:00 on the day a defense lawyer was trying to file an appeal to stay an execution scheduled for that same evening. The chief justice was not the one assigned to the case, and there were three other justices working late, specifically waiting for the appeal. The defense lawyers had requested a mere 20 minute delay, because they were having computer problems. The court was closed without notice to any other justices, and now there is a huge wave of complaints from defense lawyers, law professors, and other jurists.
There is a satirical(?) Web site about Justice Keller called SharonKiller.com and The Houston Chronicle has an editorial piece that is strikingly harsh about Justice Keller titled Locking Justice’s Door. Here are excerpts from the editorial, which is well worth reading in full.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals chief justice’s unethical, outrageous blocking of a death row appeal merits the most severe legal sanctions.
The events of Sept. 25 have put a stain on Texas justice that can only be cleansed by the removal of Chief Justice Sharon Keller from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
On that day, Judge Keller let her personal bias in favor of the death penalty trample the right of now-executed prisoner Michael Richard to access the courts and have due process. In doing so, she abdicated her role as the state’s chief criminal justice to become its chief executioner.
After the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider a challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection, attorneys for Richard, a convicted murderer, had less than a day to craft an appeal for a stay of execution pending resolution of the issue before the high court. A ruling by the Texas court was necessary before the U.S. Supreme Court could consider his appeal.
Because of computer problems, Richard’s lawyers requested that the Court of Criminal Appeals remain open past 5 p.m. to take the last-minute appeal. The judge assigned to the case, Cheryl Johnson, and two other judges had stayed late, anticipating that an appeal might be forthcoming before the execution scheduled later that evening. Without informing them of her decision, Judge Keller refused to allow the appeal to be filed after 5 p.m. Richard was executed hours later.
Even Keller’s court colleagues expressed dismay at her actions. Justice Johnson was quoted in the complaint as angry, because “if I’m in charge of the execution, I ought to have known about these things, and I ought to have been asked whether I was willing to stay late and accept those filings.” She indicated she would have accepted the brief, “because this is a death case.” Justice Paul Womack told the Chronicle he waited in his office till 7 p.m. because “it was reasonable to expect an effort would be made in some haste in light of the Supreme Court. I wanted to be sure to be available in case it was raised.”
Justice Keller’s response to the uproar was that the lawyers should have filed the appeal on time. After all, she said, “they had all day.” When an irreversible action like an execution is only hours away from occurring, Keller’s adherence to a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. justice schedule is mind boggling. Civil judges are available at all hours to sign temporary restraining orders as are criminal judges to approve search warrants. Yet in the taking of a life, the most profound action a judge will ever be involved in, Keller wants to stick to banker’s hours.