TEXAS – Appeals court race highlights statewide campaigns

october 19,2012 http://www.sfgate.com

In 2010, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller faced discipline for closing the courthouse just as a death row inmate was trying to file an appeal, and she was fined $100,000 for not disclosing more than $2 million in property and income on her personal financial statements.

The discipline in the death penalty case was later tossed on appeal, and Keller has appealed the ethics fine. But it’s those blemishes on the Republican’s career that Democratic defense attorney Keith Hampton hopes will propel him to win Keller’s seat in November and break the GOP’s hold on the state’s highest court for criminal cases.

“She’s banking on nobody noticing,” Hampton said, noting the $100,000 fine remains the largest in the history of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Keller did not respond to repeated telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.

Keller was hauled before the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for ordering the court shut at 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, which lawyers for condemned killer Michael Richard said blocked them from filing a last-minute appeal. Richard was executed that night for the rape and slaying of a Houston-area nurse who had seven children.

Keller faced removal from the bench, but the commission instead issued a “public warning,” one of the least severe sanctions at its disposal, while criticizing her for casting “public discredit on the judiciary.”

Keller appealed, and got the ruling dismissed by a special court of review, which said the commission had overstepped its legal authority.

In 2010, she said, “”What happened to me shouldn’t happen to any judge” and called the “Killer Keller” nickname death penalty opponents have her was hurtful and uncivil.

Hampton says the death penalty case and the ethics fine show a judge who is indifferent to justice in the death penalty, and willing to ignore the law to protect her own finances. Keller filed corrected financial disclosure forms, saying the failure to disclose was merely a mistake.

Keller was first elected in 1994. She had plenty of practice filing the forms, Hampton said.

“I fill out those papers, too,” Hampton said. “They go on and on about bonds, stocks and property. I don’t know how you miss that.”

Hampton is a criminal defense attorney who has appeared for the 9-member court in death penalty cases. He says his experience handling capital punishment cases at every level, from the trial court to the U.S. Supreme Court, give him a unique perspective on the gravity surrounding life-and-death issues before the court.

“The result does matter. Innocence should matter. Guilt should matter. Life or death should not be indifferent,” Hampton said.

In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Keller said her critics ignore her work chairing a task force that provides legal aid for the indigent, and another that ensures offenders with mental illness receive proper treatment.

Keller said then she expected the ethics issues to be raised during her 2012 reelection campaign.

“I can deal with it,” she said.

There are other statewide races on the ballot Nov. 6.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judges Barbara Parker Hervey and Elsa Alcala are running for new terms. Both are Republican who did not draw Democrat opponents.

The nine-member state Supreme Court has three seats up for election, with Republican incumbents Don Willett (Place 2) and Nathan Hecht (Place 6) running for new six-year terms.

Hecht, first elected in 1988, is the longest-serving member of the court with a reputation as one of its intellectual leaders. He has drawn Democratic opponent Michele Petty, a San Antonio attorney, who has made an issue of a $29,000 ethics fine levied against Hecht in 2007 for an illegal campaign contribution. Hecht appealed and the case is still pending.

Willett, who has served on the court since 2005, did not draw a Democratic opponent.

Former state district judge John Devine of Houston, who got attention for fighting to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his courtroom, is on the ballot in Place 4 after he defeated incumbent Justice David Medina in the primary. Devine did not draw a Democratic opponent in the general election.

The state Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, has two places on the ballot.

In the open seat in Place 1, Republican Christi Craddick, an oil and gas attorney, party activist and daughter for former House Speaker Tom Craddick, faces Democrat Dale Henry, a licensed petroleum engineer and former Mills County commissioner for the six-year term.

Craddick says it is important that state encourage drilling and energy development and protect the industry from overreaching federal regulations. State officials and energy companies have been fighting federal agencies over myriad issues in recent years, from the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline to the environmental impact of the oil and gas drilling process called fracking.

Henry says he supports drilling, including fracking, but believes oil and gas companies are polluting the state’s land and water. Henry says he will fight for strict enforcement of environmental protections laws. The race has also drawn Libertarian candidate Vik Wall and Green Party candidate Chris Kennedy.

Commissioner Barry Smitherman, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, is running to fill the rest of his unexpired term in Place 2. Smitherman is a former chairman of the Public Utility Commission and led that agency in 2008 when the state pledged billions of dollars to boost wind energy. He says energy companies should be encouraged to explore and drill. Smitherman did not draw a Democratic opponent.

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