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The softer side of Sharon Keller

The Trib lets us know that there’s more to Sharon Keller than willful indifference to death penalty appeals and rigid fealty to the prosecutorial perspective.

For nearly as long as she has led the state’s highest criminal court, Keller has also served as chairwoman of the Task Force on Indigent Defense. Lawmakers created the task force in 2001 when Texas was a national laughingstock for its dismal provision of legal representation for poor criminal defendants. Now, counties must meet minimum standards for legal representation, thousands more poor defendants get qualified attorneys, and 91 counties — many in rural areas with few public resources — are served in some capacity by a public defender. Both critics and supporters of the Texas criminal justice system agree the task force has overseen a sea change in defense representation for people who can’t otherwise afford it. And despite the roiling controversy over her judicial conduct, most seem to agree that Keller’s leadership has been instrumental. “We started at ground zero,” said state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, a member of the task force and chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. “We were one of the worst states around, and as chairman of the task force, she’s really been in a real sense responsible for building the whole thing.”

Among the major initiatives that have improved representation for the poor is increased funding for counties to provide defense services. Before 2001, the state gave counties no money to provide indigent defense. Lawyers who did the work often received a pittance, making it difficult for courts to find qualified lawyers to take the cases. Last year, the task force awarded counties statewide $31 million to run public defender offices and provide indigent defense. Andrea Marsh, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, said Keller has worked not only to give counties funds they need for indigent defense, but also to give them incentives for new and innovative programs. Task force grants have helped launch programs like Travis County’s Mental Health Public Defender Office. “She has been supportive of giving more of that money to program improvements and not just giving that money for the same old thing that isn’t working,” Marsh said.

Among other things, the TFID would be the grant-awarder for the Harris County public defender’s office. I’d have to go back and re-read that Texas Monthly profile on Keller from 2009 to see if they mentioned this; if they had, or if I had realized what it was, I might have reacted a little less negatively to the piece. I’ll stipulate that she’s done good work with this, that she deserves credit for it, and that any thorough reckoning of her as a person needs to take this into account to be fair. But it has nothing to do with her actions in the Michael Richard case, and it has no bearing on her career as a judge, for which her behavior has been consistently and in many cases overtly hostile to defendants. I give her points for character and humanity, but as a judge she’s beyond redemption. Grits has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    Well, I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find good things to say about anyone. Like you say, her record speaks for itself.

  2. […] some positive accomplishments in her tenure as judge, mostly having to do with the state’s Indigent Defense Task Force. But whatever positive qualities she must have had to bring to that work, they have been […]