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Sharon Keller

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

“The least-discussed vulnerable Republican on the ballot”

From Grits:

Grits does not expect Beto O’Rourke to win. But if he were to pull off the upset, many other dominos could fall in succession as a result, with at least three Republican senators, Texas’ Attorney General, and potentially even the Lt. Governor at risk. Another race likely to flip if Dem turnout goes that high is Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Incumbent Sharon Keller won her primary with only 52% of the vote, and CCA races have consistently been among the lowest vote-getters over the years among Republican statewide officials. There is no Libertarian in the race, so the Democrat, Maria Jackson, should get all the anti-incumbent vote. If, on election night, the US Senate race at the top of the ticket is competitive, or heaven forbid, Beto pulls an upset, check down the ballot for this race; it may flip, too.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The basis of this idea, which Grits has advanced before, is that in past elections Republicans have tended to drop off and not vote in downballot races more than Democrats have. If that is the case, and if the top of the ticket features a close race, then it stands to reason that other statewide races would be closer, and might even flip. I made the same observation early in the 2016 cycle when the polls were more favorable to Hillary Clinton in Texas. We seem to be headed for a close race at the top of the ticket this year, so could this scenario happen?

Well, lots of things can happen, but let’s run through the caveats first. First and foremost, Republicans don’t undervote in downballot races at the same pace in off years as they do in Presidential years. Here’s how the judicial vote totals from 2014 compared to the top of the ticket:


2014

Abbott - 2,796,547
Davis - 1,835,596

Candidate         Votes   Dropoff   Drop %
==========================================
Hecht         2,757,218    39,329     1.4%
Brown         2,772,824    23,723     0.8%
Boyd          2,711,363    85,184     3.0%
Richardson    2,738,412    58,135     2.1%

Moody         1,720,343   115,253     6.3%
Meyers        1,677,478   158,118     8.6%
Benavides     1,731,031   104,565     5.7%
Granberg      1,671,921   163,375     8.9%

Maybe if the hot race that year had been more closely contested we’d see something more like what we’ve seen in Presidential years, but so far this isn’t encouraging for that hypothesis.

The other issue is that it’s clear from polling that Beto is getting some number of Republican votes. That’s great for him and it’s a part of why that race is winnable for him, but the Republicans who vote for Beto are probably going to vote for mostly Republicans downballot. The end result of that is judicial candidates who outperform the guy at the top. Like what happened in 2016:


Trump    = 4,685,047
Lehrmann = 4,807,986
Green    = 4,758,334
Guzman   = 4,884,441
Keel     = 4,790,800
Walker   = 4,782,144
Keasler  = 4,785,012

So while Trump carried Texas by nine points, these judicial candidates were winning by about 15 points. Once more, not great for this theory.

Now again, nine points isn’t that close, or at least not close enough for this scenario to be likely. (I had suggested a maximum six-point spread in 2016.) Nine points in this context is probably a half million votes, and undervoting isn’t going to cut it for making up that much ground. But if Beto is, say, within four points (or, praise Jeebus, he wins), and if the reason he’s that close is primarily due to base Democratic turnout being sky high and not anti-Cruz Republicans, then the rest of the statewide ballot becomes very interesting. I personally would bet on Ken Paxton or Sid Miller going down before one of the Supreme Court or CCA justices, but the closer we are to 50-50, the more likely that anything really can happen. You know what you need to do to make that possible.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

The enduring mystery of Lawrence Meyers

People are still speculating about why the enigmatic CCA Judge switched parties.

Judge Larry Meyers

Judge Larry Meyers

Lawrence “Larry” Meyers did something last year that no other politician in Texas has done in nearly two decades: He became a statewide Democratic officeholder.

As Democrats gather in Dallas this week for their state convention, Meyers — a Court of Criminal Appeals Judge who left the GOP to run for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court as a Democrat this year — may be a name frequently mentioned.

“It was an unusual move,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said of Meyers’ party switching.

“He’s either a maverick, reacting based upon his personal assessments and personal beliefs, or he sees a long-term political trend, a change in Texas politics coming.”

[…]

Demographers predict that Texas, now solidly Republican, will shift back to the left at some point.

As that occurs, they foresee that Democrats will slowly begin reclaiming posts they haven’t held in years — since John Sharp was comptroller, Dan Morales was attorney general, Bob Bullock was lieutenant governor, Pete Laney was House Speaker and Ann Richards was governor.

The question is when that will happen.

If Meyers made the right decision, and switched to the Democratic Party as it readies for a revolution, he could ride the wave and be considered a leader in the party.

But his switch alone doesn’t signify that the Democratic revolution is near.

“Democrats are going to have to win statewide before they can say they’ve turned that tide,” [Mike Hailey, editor and publisher of Capitol Inside] said. “They haven’t done that yet.”

We’ve speculated before about Meyers’ motives, but he still hasn’t said anything so your guess and mine continue to be all we’ve got. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that he’s looking for something different. He was planning to challenge Sharon Keller for Presiding Judge of the CCA in the 2012 GOP primary, but apparently decided against it, perhaps because it would have been too contentious or he became convinced he couldn’t win. At least this way he gets to be on the ballot in November, and if he loses he’ll get another shot in 2016. If my guess is right, perhaps he’ll file for a Supreme Court bench again. It’s not crazy to think he might have a better shot winning as a Dem than he did winning a GOP primary against a colleague, even if you don’t think much about his chances as a D. Anyway, that’s my guess. There may be other reasons, in addition to or instead of the ones I’ve suggested, but until he decides to talk about it, that’s the best we can do.

DeLay gets his day before the CCA

Looks like he might have had a pretty good day, too.

Who are YOU to judge me?

Who are YOU to judge me?

Oral arguments in Tom DeLay’s decadelong legal fight with the Travis County District Attorney’s office heated up Wednesday as Republican judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals questioned whether prosecutors could prove the former House majority leader illegally funneled corporate money to state candidates.

[…]

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, one of the panel’s eight Republicans, was outspokenly doubtful about prosecutors’ ability to prove DeLay and his associates illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate donations to seven GOP candidates for the state Legislature in 2002.

The money was donated to DeLay’s state political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, and made its way into a Republican National Committee corporate donations account. Checks totaling the same amount then were distributed from a different RNC account to the state candidates.

[Travis County Assistant District Attorney Holly] Taylor said the scheme is illegal under state law, which bans corporate contributions to campaigns, but Keller and her colleagues were less sure.

“It seems like your theory of prosecution has some internal inconsistencies,” Keller said, referring to the money laundering argument. Judge Elsa Alcala also asked about the unprecedented nature of the state’s case, saying the original intent of the money laundering law was to target drug trafficking: “When I see this case, my first reaction is, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

“The first time something happens, it’s still a crime,” Taylor responded.

Seriously, when was the last time Sharon effing Keller expressed that kind of skepticism in any prosecutor’s case? It’s like Dave Wilson not being a flaming homophobe – it’s just not in her nature. I have never bought into the idea that the CCA would be pro-Republican on DeLay’s behalf, but if this is how they actually go it will be hard to dismiss that idea. We won’t know till 2015 on that, so we’ll see. What do you think, am I reading too much into this? Texas Politics and Texas Public Radio have more.

Who judges the judges?

Meet the guy that’s been going after judges with behavioral issues.

The photograph at the top of Greg Enos’ monthly email newsletter is always the same: A pack of mongooses confronting a reared-up cobra.

The Webster family lawyer says the image is a symbol of a change he aims to kindle in the Houston-area legal community – at least in family courts.

“I do not expect to win every case,” Enos writes at the end of most newsletters. “I just want an efficient system in which my client gets a fair hearing by a judge who works hard, knows the law and does not play favorites.”

The newsletter Enos started nearly three years ago, titled the International Journal on the Reform of Family Courts or The Mongoose for short, has been one tool in his quest. Criminal complaints filed against judges have been another.

The 53-year-old Austin native’s criminal complaint last year against Galveston County Judge Christopher Dupuy preceded an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments related to judicial misconduct that led to the judge’s suspension and eventual resignation.

Enos’ next target is 311th state District Court Judge Denise Pratt, a Republican family court judge first elected in 2010, whom he has accused of falsifying court records in an effort to cover up tardy rulings.

See here for the background on that. It’s far too early to know if the complaints about Judge Pratt have any legs, but they do seem to be getting attention. Of interest is that with each judge, Enos documented cases for criminal prosecution, rather than just file complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Enos also sent his complaint to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, but described the move as a formality, calling the commission “worthless” based on its response to the Dupuy complaint.

“I don’t expect them to take any action because they wouldn’t in his case,” Enos said.

The SCJC proved to be largely worthless during the Sharon Keller debacle of 2010, so one can hardly blame Enos for seeking alternate paths to justice.

DeLay wants to sue

Whatever you say, dude.

Are YOU fit to judge me?

Are YOU fit to judge me?

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, reveling in victory Thursday against Texas prosecutors in a money-laundering case, said his political career is over but he’s eager to return to the courthouse.

If he can find a lawyer “with a backbone,” DeLay said, he’ll considering suing the Travis County district attorney for the eight-year legal clash that ended with an appeals court tossing his conviction.

“I cannot take this laying down. For the welfare of the people that serve in the future, I can’t just let this go,” he said.

The threat was vintage DeLay. As the GOP’s No. 3 leader in the House after the 1994 takeover, he earned the nickname “The Hammer” for an aggressive style that cowed fellow Republicans and tormented Democrats.

Yes, and like other best-forgotten relics of bygone decades, he’s back to enjoy a moment in the sun and to try to cash in while he still can. I wouldn’t go lawyer-shopping just yet, however, since there’s still the small matter of the state’s appeal to the CCA. Mark Bennett thinks that the top court’s all-GOP panel isn’t likely to grant discretionary review, but with all due respect to his infinitely greater knowledge of the criminal justice system, I disagree. The CCA may be a bastion of Republicans, but they’re pro-prosecutor first and foremost. Maybe there’s enough overlap between Republicans and prosecutors in this state to conflate the two, but I believe there’s a difference. I mean, just ask yourself: What would Sharon Keller do? Sure, maybe she’s rubbed elbows with Tom DeLay before, at a fundraiser or an execution-watching party, but do you think that’s enough to overcome her bedrock belief that anyone who’s been arrested for a crime must be guilty of something, and it’s her job as a judge to make sure they stay guilty for it? Anything is possible, I guess, but expecting Sharon Keller to buy the argument of a defendant seems like a losing bet to me.

Yes, I know she’s not the only judge on the CCA, but the rest of them are hardly flaming defense attorneys. And before you suggest that Keller might listen to the arguments before making up her mind, I have to ask – Have you ever read one of her opinions? The facts don’t exist to shape her opinion, the facts exist to be shaped to fit her opinion. Who are we kidding here? If Sharon Keller wants you to be guilty, that’s all the fact she needs.

Anyway. Point is, this still isn’t over. And to answer Lisa Falkenberg’s question about the two guys that pled guilty, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro both had provisions in their plea agreements that took into account the possibility that DeLay’s conviction could get tossed. As such, I think they’re both pretty happy right about now.

Keller accepts a plea deal on ethics charge

She gets off pretty lightly, if you ask me.

BagOfMoney

Sharon Keller, the state’s top criminal court judge, has reached a deal to substantially reduce a record $100,000 fine levied by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to fully disclose millions of dollars of real estate and income in financial statements.

Under the settlement, released Friday, Keller will pay $25,000 to resolve repeated violations of the section of state law that governs personal financial disclosures for elected officials.

In a move that surprised even state watchdog groups, the commission in April 2010 slapped Keller with a $100,000 fine – the largest-ever civil penalty against a politician – after finding that she did not report a total of at least $3.8 million in earnings and property on two annual financial statements.

Keller fixed the omissions on the financial statements, but appealed the commission’s fine to a Travis County state District Court, where it languished for three years.

On Thursday, the Ethics Commission approved the settlement with a 7-0 vote, but referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which represents state agencies in legal matters. The attorney general’s office declined comment.

[…]

In 2007, she became mired in national controversy and fought to hold onto her bench on unrelated charges raised by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that she improperly closed the court to a death row inmate’s appeal, just hours before he was executed. A special master found Keller did nothing legally wrong in that case.

During the death-row case, Keller claimed she could not afford to pay her high-powered attorney, Charles Babcock, prompting a state watchdog group to dig into her personal financial filings, said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice.

Keller’s financial form omissions first were reported by the Dallas Morning News in March 2009. Texans for Public Justice then filed the ethics complaints with the commission that led to the original $100,000 fine.

“We’re disappointed the fine was rolled back by 75 percent,” McDonald said. “We thought the $100,000 fine sent a message to politicians like Keller that they can’t hide assets from the public and their personal financial statements need to be taken seriously.”

See here, here, and here for some of the background on this long and faith-destroying saga. In my opinion, Sharon Keller is the second luckiest politician in the state, trailing Rick Perry by a hair. It’s rare to find someone who has done so much for so long to bring down the wrath of karma on themselves only to get off scotfree again and again. She’s a one-woman rebuttal to the concept of justice in society. I don’t even know what to say.

Are two courts better than one?

Why exactly do we need two top courts in Texas?

A proposal for the upcoming legislative session is resuscitating a debate that goes back to the writing of the Texas Constitution in 1876.

The bill, authored by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, would abolish the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for all criminal matters, and bring all criminal cases under the Texas Supreme Court, which now hears only civil and juvenile cases.

Texas and Oklahoma are the only two states with their highest courts divided between civil and criminal jurisdictions, though others have considered it as a means to deal with large case backlogs. Last year, lawmakers in Florida considered splitting the state’s Supreme Court, particularly to deal with a growing list of death penalty appeals, but a political battle killed the proposal.

Raymond’s bill and joint resolution, pre-filed last month, would allow the Texas Supreme Court to decide which criminal cases to review but would require that it look at all death penalty appeals.

He says that the change should be a no-brainer, because 48 other states and the federal court system have a single highest court. “The model is there for most of the country,” he said. “The more people talk about it the more they will agree.”

It’s an interesting story, which includes some of the history of the CCA and how it came about. Though the attempt to do away with the CCA has come up multiple times before in the Lege – Rep. Raymond filed similar legislation two years ago that got nowhere – I confess I’d never heard about any of those efforts before. According to Scott Henson, who is quoted in the story and who elaborates on his remarks and the history of the court here, it’s usually the minority party pushing these efforts, as it would result in fewer offices for the dominant party to occupy. That’s as may be, but for what it’s worth I’ve never heard a Democrat talk about this before now. I personally am agnostic on the idea. I doubt it will actually save much money – the extra caseload on a single court would necessitate a much larger staff to handle it – and I do think it will make the appeals process take longer. Having said that, the fact that 48 other states survive with one top court suggests that we’d be just fine, and the fact that “we’ve always done it this way” isn’t really a justification. And hey, if it means that Sharon Keller would be finally put out of a job, then you’d better believe I’d vote for it.

2012 election results

As I type this there are still a number of unsettled races in Texas, so things may change between now and tomorrow morning after we’ve all had an insufficient night’s sleep. But here’s how they stand at this time, and I will use my what I’ll be looking for post as a jumping off point.

Sen. Wendy Davis

First and foremost, State Sen. Wendy Davis was re-elected in SD10. I can’t begin to tell you how big that is. She was by far the Republicans’ biggest target this year, and she was again running in a district draw to favor a Republican candidate, this time without a Libertarian in the race to potentially draw votes away from her opponent. Yet she prevailed, riding an Election Day majority to a come-from-behind win, and thrusting herself squarely into the conversation for a statewide run at some point. Now the Democrats are assured of at least 11 Senate seats no matter how long it takes Rick Perry to call the special election to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos, who also won, albeit much more easily. Again, this is huge.

As of this writing, Nick Lampson is trailing in CD14 by about 19,000 votes, with most of Galveston County still to report. I don’t know if he can win based on that. He fell short of the 60% he needed in Jefferson County that he supposedly needed, pulling 58.3% there. However, the Texas Tribune has called CD23 for Pete Gallego, who is leading by 6000 votes with only a handful of what are likely to be mostly friendly precincts still outstanding. Congrats to Rep.-Elect Pete Gallego!

It looks like Dems will exactly hit the target of +7 seats in the House for a total of 55. In addition to the three they won by default, they are leading in or have won HDs 34 (Abel Herrero), 78 (Joe Moody), 117 (Phillip Cortez), and 144 (Mary Ann Perez), while Rep. Craig Eiland has 53% with most of Galveston still out. Basically, Dems won four of the five districts in which they were the majority votegetters in most races in 2008, the exception being HD43, where turncoat Rep. JM Lozano appears to have held on. Sadly, Ann Johnson lost, but Gene Wu and Hubert Vo won easily.

Dems have picked up a seat on the SBOE as well, as Martha Dominguez has ousted Charlie Garza in SBOE1, while Marisa Perez won easily in SBOE3 and Ruben Cortez has held Mary Helen Berlanga’s seat in SBOE2. Considering what a massive clusterfsck this looked like after the Democratic primary, it’s a damn miracle.

With all but nine precincts reporting in Harris County, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. First, here’s the Presidential vote for Harris County as of this time:

Romney – 579,068
Obama – 579,070

Yes, Obama is leading Romney in Harris County by TWO VOTES. Good thing no one will call for a recount of that. The good news is that downballot Vince Ryan, Adrian Garcia, and Diane Trautman are all winning, while Mike Anderson has bested Lloyd Oliver. Sadly, Ann Harris Bennett appears to have fallen short by about 2400 votes. Fourteen of 20 Democratic judges won, while all five sitting Republican judges won, making the score 14-11 Dems overall.

Fort Bend County remained Republican. Obama will lose by a larger margin this time than in 2008 – he’s below 41% as I write this, but there are still 2000 precincts statewide to report. Given that, Keith Hampton never had a chance against Sharon Keller, but what is really disappointing is that he didn’t finish any closer to her than Obama did to Romney. However much newspaper endorsements meant in 2006, they meant squat to Keith Hampton. All of the Harris County-based appeals court candidates lost by about 10 points each. Incumbent Dem Diane Hanson lost on the Third Court, thanks in part to a peculiarly miniscule turnout in Travis County, but Dems knocked off three incumbent judges on the Fourth Court of Appeals.

Finally, all of the bond measures passed easily, as did the two Houston charter amendments and the Metro referendum. Dave Martin was elected to replace Mike Sullivan in Council District E with no runoff needed. Julian Castro’s pre-k referendum won. Marriage equality was victorious in Maine and Maryland, with Washington still out, and an anti-marriage equality referendum was narrowly losing in Minnesota. And Colorado legalized pot. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll have more later, including a bonanza of precinct analyses once I get the data. Thank you and good night.

UPDATE: Rep. Eiland did win, as did the other Democratic legislative candidates I mentioned, so it’s +7 in the House. Nick Lampson did lose, so it’s +1 for the Dems in Congress.

What I’ll be looking for tonight

Just a reminder that I’ll be on KPFT tonight starting at 7 PM to talk about the elections. Here’s a preview of the things I’ll be looking for:

1. SD10 – Sen. Wendy Davis vs Mark Shelton: Easily the most important race on the ballot in Texas. Davis has been a progressive champion and a pain in Dan Patrick’s rear end, and will make for a strong statewide candidate when she’s ready. She also ensures that the Dems maintain enough votes in the Senate to invoke the two-thirds rule until whenever Rick Perry calls the special election to succeed the late Sen. Mario Gallegos. I am heartened that Robert Miller thinks Davis is leading, though he subsequently amended that, but I won’t rest easy until I see that lead on the Secretary of State’s election results webpage.

2. Legislative races – While Dems start out with only 48 seats in the Lege, they will automatically pick up three today – HDs 35, 40, and 101 – because there are no Republicans running in them. Beyond that, the over/under line for Dems is 55 seats total. Three in particular to watch: HD23, in which Rep. Craig Eiland is one of the only, if not the only, threatened Democratic incumbents; HD134, in which Ann Johnson’s challenge to freshman Rep. Sarah Davis will be a good test of how well a message attacking the Rs for cutting $5.4 billion from public education will work; and HD136, the open seat in Williamson County, which will be a test of whether 2008 was a fluke or a trend for Democrats in places like that.

3. Adrian Garcia and Mike Anderson – Everyone expects both candidates to win, as both have become poster children for not voting a straight ticket this year. As such, they will both likely represent the high-water mark for each party this year, as Garcia and Ed Emmett were in 2008. I’ll be paying particular attention to how they did in various legislative and other districts once the precinct data is out, because that may provide an early roadmap for future electoral targets.

4. Fort Bend County – Fort Bend came very close to going Democratic in 2008. President Obama received 48.49% of the vote there, and no Republican won the county by as much as 10,000 votes out of 200,000 cast. Is this the year Democrats break through? Also worth keeping an eye on is freshman County Commissioner Richard Morrison in his race against double voter Bruce Fleming.

5. CCA – Hampton vs Keller – I think we’re all familiar with this one by now. Whether Hampton has a chance to win depends largely, though not entirely, on how well Obama does in Texas. The presence of a Libertarian candidate in this race means that Hampton can win with less than 50% of the vote. Most of the statewide judicial races in 2008 had Libertarians in them, and they got about 3% of the vote on average. I suspect the ceiling for that may be higher in this case, as some Republicans may prefer to not vote for Keller but not vote for a Dem, either. I will not be surprised if 48% is enough to win. If Obama can improve on 2008, even a little, it makes it that much easier for Hampton to get over the hump. If not, we may be stuck with Keller for another six years or until she finally has the grace to resign.

6. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – Jim Sharp broke through for Democrats in 2008, and there’s a nearly full slate of them running for seats on these courts, whose jurisdictions cover multiple counties, this year. As was the case in 2008, a sufficiently strong showing in Harris County may be enough to make it across the finish line, though if Fort Bend is blue as well, that would be a big help. This is where future Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals candidates can emerge.

7. Bonds, Metro, and SA Pre-K – I expect the Houston bonds to pass. Keep an eye on the charter amendments, since if they pass as well there can be no further charter amendments on the ballot till May of 2015. I think the Metro referendum will pass, but I would not bet my own money on it. The San Antonio Pre-K initiative is expected to be close. Given the recent love affair in the national media and from the national party for Mayor Julian Castro, a loss here will undoubtedly be portrayed as a setback for him.

I think that’s plenty to think about. What races are you watching?

Endorsement watch: The Statesman gets in the game

In addition to their Sunday endorsement of Paul Sadler, the Statesman made up for lost time last week by finally getting around to making endorsements in various races. Among their first was a nice recommendation of John Courage.

John Courage

Texas Senate, District 25

District 25, which stretches from South Austin to northern San Antonio and Bexar County, is a Republican district, and Donna Campbell, a tea party favorite who crushed incumbent state Sen. Jeff Wentworth in the runoff, is heavily favored to win Nov. 6. Nonetheless, voters in District 25 should put aside their partisan inclinations and consider the alternative: Democrat John Courage.

Courage, an Air Force veteran and San Antonio schoolteacher, might be a longshot, but he knows the district better than Campbell, a recent transplant. His experience in education would make him a strong advocate for public schools, but education is not the only issue where he has the advantage over Campbell. From reforming the margins tax to transportation, from water to the electrical grid, Courage is the more informed, better-qualified candidate.

The Senate really will be a less functional place next year if Campbell wins as she is heavily favored to do. In the same editorial as this endorsement of Courage is one for the new HD136 as well:

Matt Stillwell

Texas House, District 136

District 136 is a new state House district that includes Cedar Park, Leander, Brushy Creek and a substantial part of Northwest Austin. Anchored in Williamson County, District 136 appears to be safe for the Republican in this race, Tony Dale, an Army veteran and member of the Cedar Park City Council. He’s a strong candidate who has a deep affection for his community and no doubt would serve his district’s residents well. But in a close call, we’re supporting Democrat Matt Stillwell.

An insurance agent who lives in Northwest Austin, Stillwell’s deep concern about the future of public education motivated his run for the Legislature. He says he’ll fight for public schools if elected and will do what he can to roll back punitive, high-stakes testing. He also understands how seriously underfunded the state’s roads are and how cuts to roads and highways, along with cuts in other areas, have not reduced spending or tax burdens but merely shifted costs and debt to towns and cities. He focuses on fiscally sound, gimmick-free remedies that would benefit District 136 in the long term.

As I said before, I think this race has the potential to be closer than people think. The shift in voter behavior from 2004 to 2008 was huge, and the district is likely to have evolved further since then. How much I don’t know, and of course it could have changed back. Stillwell is low on cash, but he’s been competitive in fundraising and hasn’t been greatly outspent, at least so far. I just think there may be more to this one than what the numbers might suggest.

After that, the Statesman opined on the statewide judicial races.

You may recall that Sharon Keller, chief justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals – the state’s highest criminal appellate court – was reprimanded after 300 lawyers filed complaints alleging dereliction of duty. The complaints stem from an incident involving attempts by lawyers representing a death row inmate to file motions after business hours. Keller told the lawyers that the clerk’s office closed at 5 p.m. and the inmate was executed later that night.

The incident garnered national attention and ended with Keller being reprimanded by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. She appealed the reprimand and it was ultimately lifted. It was a victory but not a vindication because the specially selected court of review said a reprimand was not included in the options available to the Commission on Judicial Conduct in disciplining a judge.

Some might call that a technicality, but that’s ultimately what the law is — a collection of technicalities.

Then there was the case of Nathan Hecht, who is considered the intellectual leader of the Texas Supreme Court’s most conservative wing. Hecht was reprimanded for lobbying to confirm the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. That reprimand was also lifted, but the drama didn’t end there. Hecht raised eyebrows when he not only solicited contributions to pay the legal fees incurred in battling the complaint but asked a couple of friendly legislators to file bills that would have allowed him to use state funds to pay those bills. When state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and former state Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, learned that Hecht was soliciting contributions, they pulled their bills down

That was not the end of it. Hecht was fined $29,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission in 2008, declaring the discount extended to him on those legal fees was an improper campaign contribution. The matter has yet to be resolved.

Keller also tried unsuccessfully to have the state pick up the tab for legal fees and said she paid them out of savings and took out a loan.

[…]

Michele Petty

Democrat Keith Hampton opposes Keller in the general election. Michele Petty, a San Antonio lawyer, challenges Hecht. As Democrats, both face an uphill battle.

Hampton brings an impressive legal resume to the race as well as experience as a statewide candidate. He is known and respected for his criminal defense work and has notched a long bibliography of scholarly legal works.

Hampton is amply qualified both academically and ethically to serve on the court, but more importantly to carry a message that Texans demand a judiciary free of taint or bias.

The same standards should apply in the Supreme Court as well. There is no denying Hecht’s ability, talent and background.

Petty, on the other hand, is an unknown but is eager and is motivated. Her demeanor and approach is a marked and clear contrast to the more polished, patrician Hecht.

But Petty’s academic training is impressive. She was Baylor Law’s top graduate in 1984 and a member of the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame.

She understands well that she is running uphill. Win or lose, the state owes Petty its thanks for the effort. An airing of unpleasant history may save us a repetition of it.

It’s not quite an endorsement of Hampton and Petty, in the sense that the Statesman never actually uses words like “we endorse” or “we recommend a vote”, but they do say that “we all lose” if Hampton and Petty lose, so it’s pretty clear what they intend. Hampton, of course, has been sweeping up endorsements left and right, but as far as I an tell this is a first for Petty, about whom you can learn more here. Keller is a much easier target than Hecht, whose sins are more garden-variety, but some new blood would do both courts a lot of good.

Overview of the Keller-Hampton race

This story covers a lot of familiar ground, but it’s worth going over again.

Three judges on Texas’ highest criminal court are seeking re-election in November, including Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who’s been a lightning rod for controversy since her last test of voters in 2006.

Elected to Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, she is the only incumbent on the court with major-party opposition, facing a Democrat and Libertarian.

In 2007, Keller, 59, of Austin, gained national attention for refusing to keep the court open past 5 p.m. to accept a last-minute appeal of a death row inmate who was executed hours later. Charges were filed by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, but it ruled that she did not violate any laws or warrant punishment “beyond the public humiliation she has surely suffered,” according to court records.

In 2010, Keller received the largest fine ever levied by the Texas Ethics Commission — $100,000 — for breaking finance disclosure law by failing to report $2.4 million in personal assets. Keller did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

[…]

Keller’s opponents are Democrat Keith Hampton and Libertarian Lance Stott.

Hampton, a defense attorney in Austin, ran unsuccessfully for the court’s Place 6 in 2010. He said he hopes Keller’s missteps will boost him to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office since 1994.

“We have a judge on the court who has been found to be unethical by every agency in government that can make that determination,” Hampton said. “Her actions have given (the Texas judicial system) a black eye.”

Hampton, 51, Austin, drafted the original proposal of Senate Bill 112 in 2009, which established veterans courts in Texas, and he advocated for a law passed in 2007 that established state prisoners’ right to petition a court to have DNA evidence tested. He counseled against former state Solicitor General and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz and then won in 2007 in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Panetti vs. Quarterman, which spared from execution a schizophrenic murderer from Fredericksburg.

Hampton said GOP straight-ticket voters should “spend an extra few seconds” to vote for him instead of Keller.

“It’s not a matter of Republican or Democrat, or left and right,” Hampton said. “It’s a matter of right and wrong.”

Like I said, this is familiar ground if you’ve read any of the endorsement editorials for Hampton. But these things can’t be said enough, because we only get one chance every six years to do something about it. Sharon Keller has demonstrated over and over again that she is not fit to be on the bench. It’s time to send her back to private practice.

Endorsement watch: Four for four

The Express-News gets on the Keith Hampton bus.

When one of Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller’s Republican colleagues said she had made the court a “national laughingstock,” he was being generous.

Keller’s controversial judicial actions are no laughing matter.

And that’s why we urge Texans to cast ballots in the general election for her opponent, Democrat KeithHampton.

[…]

Hampton, who has been practicing law since 1989, is board certified in criminal law. The Austin-based lawyer is a member of the Pro Bono College of the State Bar of Texas.

Hampton has handled all phases of death penalty cases and has ample experience in trial and appellate work.

Hampton would a bring a refreshing and much-needed change to the state’s highest criminal court.

Of the five major dailies, the only one that has not endorsed Keith Hampton is the Austin American-Statesman, and that’s because as far as I can tell they have not done any endorsements yet. As I said yesterday, I don’t know how much all this will ultimately help Hampton, but as they say, it can’t hurt.

Endorsement watch: The Chron for Hampton

The Chron joins the DMN and the Star-Telegram in endorsing Keith Hampton for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

We highly recommend that voters cast their ballots instead for Democratic challenger Keith Hampton. This endorsement is not merely a rejection of the incumbent judge’s poor track record, but enthusiastic support for Hampton’s impressive history of working to improve the Texas judiciary, whether trying cases in courtrooms or shaping policy in Austin.

With experience ranging from criminal district courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hampton has an extensive criminal defense track record that’s not common enough on the state’s highest criminal court. Endorsed by seven former state bar presidents, Hampton is respected across the political spectrum for his work and expertise. As governor, George W. Bush appointed Hampton to the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to revise the Code of Criminal Procedure. And when he was on the Texas Supreme Court, John Cornyn appointed Hampton to the Supreme Court Jury Task Force.

Hampton also worked with state legislators to improve our judicial system, notably spearheading the creation of Veterans’ Courts in Texas – specialty courts that handle veterans suffering from service-related injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, who are prone to violence or drug use.

One would be hard pressed to find a better candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

As you might expect, the Chron began their piece with the usual airing of grievances against Sharon Keller, before noting that their recommendation of Hampton was based on more than just her long list of sins. It must be noted that Keller does have 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 consipcuously absent in her judicial record, and it is by that record that we judge her. By any accounting of that record, she fails as a judge, and it is only right to vote her off the bench. As I said before, it should be the case that editorial boards across the state reach that conclusion.

And if they do, will it make any difference? I asked that question back in 2006, when Democratic Supreme Court candidate Bill Moody swept the newspaper endorsements against underqualified Perry appointee Don Willett. My conclusion at the time was that all things being equal it was worth a few percentage points in the final tally. That was six years ago, in an election that had relatively low turnout and low levels of partisan fervor, neither of which are or will be true this year. Still, given that each endorsement is also an opportunity to remind people of Keller’s awful record, I do figure it will make some difference, and in an election where 48% of the vote may well be enough to win, every little bit helps. We’ll see how it turns out.

Hampton going after Keller

I wish him the best of luck.

The ethics behind Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller’s decision to shut the doors on a death penalty appeal are resurfacing as her opponent launches a contentious campaign against her.

Democratic defense lawyer Keith Hampton is striking out at Keller, a Dallas resident who’s held the presiding judge post since 2001.

Experts say Hampton has a long road ahead of him, made rockier by the fact that no Democrat has won a statewide race in nearly 20 years. Though he has more money in his arsenal and is running a broad campaign against Keller’s job performance, her party affiliation and incumbent status are huge advantages.

Nine judges sit on the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in the state for criminal charges, which hears capital punishment cases and has been criticized for reversing convictions for technical matters unrelated to a defendant’s innocence. If Hampton wins, he would be the only non-Republican on the court — and probably the only Democrat elected statewide.

“It’s difficult, but I don’t think impossible, given that Keller has some baggage and isn’t running the kind of campaign he is now,” said Sherri Greenberg, a former House member who is director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texas at Austin. “On the other hand, she may just be banking on that it’s a Republican gig.”

The Trib wrote about Hampton’s efforts to woo Republican voters last month. A victory for Hampton is one part how high the Democratic baseline is this year, and one part how successful he is at that persuasion effort. There is a Libertarian candidate on the ballot as well, which allows for the possibility of Hampton winning with a plurality vote. If he can get to 48%, he has a decent shot. Over the weekend he got the endorsements of the DMN and the Star-Telegram, which will help a little, and when all is said and done he should have most if not all of the remaining newspaper nods. It would be nice if more people were aware of Sharon Keller’s record and voted accordingly – visit VoteNoSharonKeller.com if you need a refresher – but this is how it is. If she wins again she gets six more years on the Court of Criminal Appeals bench. She doesn’t deserve that, and neither do we.

Re-Filing deadline roundup

Let the races begin!

The re-filing deadline was Friday, and as expected there was a flurry of activity on the final day. I’m going to do a news roundup to highlight what went on and who’s now running for what. You can find a list of filings that the Texas Democratic Party is aware of here, but bear in mind that this is not a complete list because any candidates who are running for an office which is wholly contained within one county will have filed with their County Democratic Party, so the TDP may not be aware of it. Also, it’s not clear to me if they have removed all of the candidates who filed for an office in December and then subsequently withdrew or switched. A spreadsheet of HCDP filings is here, and the Harris County GOP’s list of candidates is here. A few highlights before I go to the papers:

– US Senate candidate Daniel Boone withdrew from that race and filed for CD21 instead. Candace Duval has also filed for that race. Grady Yarbrough filed for the Senate, so there are still four Democratic candidates there.

– A San Antonio attorney named Michelle Petty filed to run for State Supreme Court, position 6, against Justice Nathan Hecht. She is the only Democrat running for the Supreme Court.

– There is also only one Democrat running for the Court of Criminal Appeals – Keith Hampton, who was on the ballot in 2010. Hampton is running against the notorious Sharon Keller, who is challenging his place on the ballot.

Keller’s challenge, filed with the state Democratic Party on Thursday, claims Keith Hampton did not submit enough valid signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot.

Candidates for statewide judicial office must collect signatures from 50 registered voters in each of the state’s 14 appellate court districts. Keller’s challenge, filed by lawyer Edward Shack, claims irregularities on several petition pages should invalidate numerous signatures, leaving Hampton short of voters in three districts.

Hampton, a 22-year Austin lawyer, dismissed Keller’s challenge in two appellate districts as quibbling and was working Thursday to correct petition forms in the third district before the evening candidate filing deadline.

Keller claimed several petition pages in two districts were invalid because signatures were collected while Hampton was running for Place 8. When Hampton changed his mind last fall and targeted Keller, it appears “Place 8” was scratched out and replaced with Keller’s position on the court, the challenge said.

The change should not invalidate the forms, Hampton said Friday. “That’s not even a clerical error,” he said. “I think her challenges there are completely meritless.”

Questions about dates associated with petitions from a third district were being addressed Thursday by collecting new signatures, “so everything there should be moot,” Hampton said.

As this is for a primary election, TDP Chair Boyd Ritchie gets to rule on the validity of the challenge, which can then be appealed to state district court. We’ll see what happens.

– Nick Lampson picked up a primary opponent for CD14, a woman from Galveston named Linda Dailey.

– Two people filed for the Democratic nomination in CD10 after Dan Grant dropped out, William E. Miller, Jr, of Austin, and Tawana Cadien of Cypress in Harris County.

– Jim Dougherty, who was the Democratic nominee for District Attorney in 2000 and for HD134 in 2004, filed to run against Rep. Ted Poe in CD02. Here’s a press release he sent out on Saturday.

– I don’t see a Democratic challenger listed for Republican Judge Tad Halbach, who presides over the 333rd Criminal District Court.

– Republicans Gilbert Pena and David Pineda filed to replace State Rep. Ken Legler on the ballot in HD144.

Here’s the Chron story about the re-filing deadline, which didn’t have any of that in it. Looking elsewhere, here’s the Statesman.

The once-a-decade redistricting process has created an unusually high number of contested races for the U.S. House. For example, former Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, a Democrat, said Friday that he will challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold for a GOP-leaning district that cuts through Bastrop but is based in Corpus Christi, which is Farenthold’s hometown. At least three other Democrats, all from the southern end of the district, also hope to take on Farenthold.

Travis County voters will see highly contested primaries for two other congressional seats. Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin will face three candidates from San Antonio in District 35, which extends from eastern Travis County to Bexar County. Doggett’s toughest fight is likely to come from Sylvia Romo, the Bexar County tax assessor-collector. More residents of that district live on the San Antonio end than the Austin end. Three Republicans filed for the seat, but it is heavily Democratic.

Meanwhile, 11 Republicans filed to run in Congressional District 25, which includes much of western Travis County and runs up to Fort Worth. Those filing include former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams and former Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams.

Republican U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Lamar Smith of San Antonio and John Carter of Round Rock each drew GOP primary opposition.

I personally think McDonald would have had a better shot at HD17, but I wish him well in his efforts. A fellow named Colin Guerra filed in HD17.

Express News:

In 2011, it appeared Doggett, D-Austin, would face Castro, D-San Antonio, in the 35th, but after Rep. Charlie Gonzalez announced his retirement, Castro switched to the 20th, where he faced local attorney Ezra Johnson.

Johnson, a former Congressional page appointed by the late Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, dropped out Friday. The new maps, he said, “cut the heart out of the 20th District.”

That left Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo, real estate broker Patrick Shearer, and former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez to duke it out for the 35th in the Democratic primary.

The latest maps, however, put Rodriguez back into the 23rd Congressional District, and chopped up Doggett’s old district.

Rodriguez filed for the 23rd this week, and will face state Rep. Pete Gallego and attorney John Bustamante for the chance to challenge Republican incumbent Francisco “Quico” Canseco.
Shearer announced Friday he would withdraw from the 35th and endorse Doggett.

Maria Luisa Alvarado, a veteran who ran as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006, is now the third Democrat on the ballot.

On the Republican ticket, John Yoggerst also filed for the 35th this week. He’ll square off against Susan Narvaiz and Rob Roark, both of San Marcos.

[…]

In South Texas, Brownsville lawyer Filemón Vela Jr. is seeking the Democratic nomination in the newly drawn 34th Congressional District, changing the dynamics in that crowded race.

More than a half dozen Democrats are running in that primary, including former Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza, Denise Saenz Blanchard of Brownsville and Ramiro Garza Jr. of South Padre Island.

Harlingen lawyer Salomon Torres, a former staffer to Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, is running for the new seat, as is Iraq war veteran Elmo Aycock , lawyer Anthony Troiani and District Attorney Armando Villalobos, all of Brownsville.

In the 27th Congressional District, Ronnie McDonald, a former Bastrop County judge, announced he will run for the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by Republican freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi.

Also seeking the Democratic nomination in that race is Rose Meza Harrison, the Nueces County Democratic Party chairwoman and Murphy Alade Junaid of Corpus Christi.

Farenthold has GOP opposition in Don Al Middlebrook of Louise and Trey Roberts of Rockport.

Clearly, I have a lot of work to do on my Texas primary page.

DMN:

In the 33rd District, 11 Democrats have filed for the primary. Three Republicans are also running.

The race is a rare matchup between Dallas and Fort Worth politicos. It also will pit blacks and Hispanics against each other in a battle that could test minority voting strength in the district.

According to the Texas Legislative Council, the district’s Hispanic voting age population is 39 percent. The black voting population is 25 percent. But black voters cast ballots at a higher percentage than Hispanic voters, so the contest is expected to be close, and all of the candidates hope to cross ethnic boundaries.

Front-runners have already emerged.

In Dallas County, former state Rep. Domingo Garcia kicked off his campaign Thursday. His supporters are already registering and mobilizing Hispanic voters on both sides of the county line. Former Dallas City Council member Steve Salazar is also a candidate. And David Alameel, a deep-pocketed dentist who controls a political action committee, entered the race just before the filing deadline.

“It will be interesting to see where all the money lands,” Minchillo said.

In Tarrant County, state Rep. Marc Veasey is running, along with Fort Worth City Council member Kathleen Hicks and others.

Veasey has the most money and is counting on the support of former U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Dallas.

[…]

State House races in Dallas County are less competitive than four years ago. No Republican or Democrat incumbent received a major challenge.

The most competitive races were in the districts represented by retiring Republicans Will Hartnett and Jim Jackson.

In Hartnett’s District 114, business consultant David Boone, former state Rep. Bill Keffer and Dallas lawyer Jason Villalba are in the GOP primary.

In District 115, the crowded Republican field includes optometrist Steve Nguyen, lawyer Andy Olivo, businessman Bennett Ratliff, attorney Matt Rinaldi and Lib Grimmett.

“We’ve got some good races for the open seats,” Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Wade Emmert said. “In many cases our incumbents were able to fend off primary challengers.”

The hottest Democratic Party statehouse race is the primary to replace Caraway, who is running for Congress.

That field includes former Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis, mental health professional Toni Rose and prosecutor Larry Taylor.

A pair of former state representatives are trying to make comebacks. Carol Kent is running in the District 114 Democratic primary. Robert Miklos is unchallenged in the District 107 Democratic primary.

Alameel had previously filed for CD06, against Smokey Joe Barton. He loaned himself some money for that race, and I daresay he’ll spend a few bucks on this one.

Star-Telegram:

District 33, the state’s newest district. Democrats: David Alameel, Domingo Garcia, Kathleen Hicks, J.R. Molina, Jason Roberts, Steve Salazar, Kyev Tatum, Manuel Valdez and Marc Veasey. Republicans: Chuck Bradley, Charles King and Bill Lawrence.

District 25, a revamped congressional district. Republicans: Ernie Beltz Jr., Bill Burch, Dianne Costa, James Dillon, Dave Garrison, Justin Hewlett, Brian Matthews, Wes Riddle, Chad Wilbanks, Michael Williams and Roger Williams.

District 6. Republicans: Rep. Joe Barton (i), Joe Chow, Itamar Gelbman and Frank Kuchar. Democrats: Brianna Hinojosa-Flores, Donald Jaquess and Kenneth Sanders.

District 12. Republican: Kay Granger (i). Democrat: Dave Robinson.

District 24. Republicans: Kenny Marchant (i), Grant Stinchfield. Democrat: Patrick McGehearty.

District 26. Republican: Michael Burgess (i). Democrat: David Sanchez.

State Senate District 9. Republican: Kelly Hancock and Todd Smith. No Democrat filed.

State Senate District 10. Wendy Davis (i). Republicans: Derek Cooper and Mark Shelton.

State Senate District 12. Republican: Jane Nelson (i). No Democrat filed.

State House District 90. Democrats: Lon Burnam (i) and Carlos Vasquez.

State House District 91. Republicans: Stephanie Klick, Kenneth M. “Ken” Sapp, Charles Scoma and Lady Theresa Thombs.

State House District 92. Republicans: Jonathan Stickland and Roger Fisher.

State House District 93. Republicans: Matt Krause, Patricia “Pat” Carlson and Barbara Nash (i).

State House District 94. Republicans: Diane Patrick (i) and Trina Lanza.

State House District 95. Republican: Monte Mitchell. Democrats: Duliani “Jamal” Masimini, Nicole Collier and Jesse Gaines.

State House District 96. Republicans: Mike Leyman and Bill Zedler (i).

State House District 97. Republicans: Craig Goldman, Susan Todd and Chris Hatch. Democrat: Gary Grassia.

State House District 98. Republicans: Giovanni Capriglione and Vicki Truitt (i). Democrat: Shane Hardin.

State House District 99: Republican: Charlie Geren (i). Democrat: Michael McClure.

State House District 101. Democrats: Vickie Barnett, Paula Pierson and Chris Turner.

The TDP page lists a Pete Martinez for SD09, and a Gilbert Zamora for HD93.

El Paso Times:

Democratic candidate Art Fierro announced he will not run for representative of District 75, the post now held by Inocente “Chente” Quintanilla.

Quintanilla is running for El Paso County Commissioners Court Precinct 3, the seat representing most of the Lower Valley recently vacated by Willie Gandara Jr., who resigned after being indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges.

In a news release, Fierro said he no longer lives within the district’s new boundaries, which were announced last week, and no waivers or extensions of residency requirements have been provided.

“My family has prepared to move twice since December during the time of uncertainty caused by the redistricting litigation,” Fierro stated in the release. “At this point it has become difficult for my family to sacrifice the expense and time to move back into the district. I am greatly disappointed that I will not have the opportunity to represent District 75, which has been our home for over a decade.”

Fierro, whose wife is County Commissioner Anna Perez, is chairman of the El Paso Community College Board of Trustees.

Fierro is the second candidate to drop out of the race for House District 75. Gandara was running for the seat but quit after his arrest by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

On Friday, businessman Antonio “Tony” San Roman jumped into the race for House District 75, party officials said. The race also includes Hector Enriquez and Mary Gonzalez.

The Lion Star Blog has been my go-to source for El Paso political information.

I think that’s all I’ve got. If there’s anything you think I’ve missed, let me know. Robert Miller has been summarizing the legislative races in the big counties, and his information differs a bit from what I’ve seen elsewhere, but I expect these discrepancies will sort themselves out in the next day or two. It’s always a little confusing right after the deadline, especially on a weekend.

UPDATE: I have been informed that there was a typo in that Harris County spreadsheet and that Tracy Good has filed for the 33rd Civil District Court and not the 339th Criminal District Court. So there are no unchallenged judicial seats after all.

Can someone beat Sharon Keller this time?

Grits notes that CCA Presiding Judge Sharon Keller has opponents in March and in November – her colleague Larry Meyers for the former, and 2010 Dem CCA candidate Keith Hampton for the latter – and wonders if either of them can defeat Texas’ worst judge.

Judge Meyers probably faces shorter odds than Hampton at unseating Keller, but so far he hasn’t run much of a campaign, that I’ve seen. He’s been on the court forever and in many respects his record as judge isn’t much better than Keller’s. But he’d surely be a less ideological and polarizing a figure, and if he runs a smart, well-funded campaign he stands a puncher’s chance to beat Keller in a primary.

That’s just what it is, though: A puncher’s chance. And as a political-consultant friend of mine likes to say, “you don’t win a fistfight without throwing any punches.” Judge Keller is surely the betting favorite to win reelection next year as I write this. If either of these men wants to beat her, they’re going to need to attack, hard, and put significant resources behind those attacks. Otherwise the race will garner no attention nor interest amidst the 7-dwarves in the GOP presidential primary and a (theoretically) competitive US Senate race for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat on the ballot in March. And in the November election, of course, the presidential race will drive turnout and (if history is any guide) drown out discussions of tertiary races like this one.

Judicial races are generally sleepy affairs, but if one or preferably both of these challengers don’t bring out the attack dogs, Sharon Keller will skate under the radar to reelection and another six-year term, despite all the embarrassment and divisiveness she’s brought to the court.

I’d argue that rather than worry too much about fundraising, because in Texas unless you’re talking eight figures you really don’t have enough to power a statewide campaign, the candidates should try to earn as much media as they can. There’s no lack of material here, it’s just a matter of coming up with something that will get attention. Think unconventionally, take some chances, and if you hear some high-minded concerns being expressed about the nature of your campaign, it means you’re doing it right. Good luck.

Meyers to challenge Keller in GOP primary

There will be a little hot judge on judge action in next March’s Republican primary.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers has told colleagues that he will challenge fellow jurist Sharon Keller in the Republican primary for the court’s presiding judge position.

Keller famously fought and ultimately won a legal battle against the state Commission on Judicial Conduct last year after it issued a “public warning” for her saying, “We close at 5,” when asked about holding the court open for last-minute death row appeal. She has said she felt vindicated when no wrongdoing was assessed.

In a memo Meyers gave to the other eight members of the court on Tuesday, he never mentioned Keller’s legal fight, but instead stated that all federal appellate courts and several state Supreme Courts rotate their chief justice position.

Keller has been presiding judge for the past decade.

“Therefore, I have decided to seek my party’s nomination for this position in next year’s election — I will make a formal announcement to this effect later this week,” he said.

Meyers was elected to another full term in 2010, so this is basically a free shot for him. Win, and he inherits Keller’s position. Lose, and he stays where he is. I presume if he wins there will then be an appointment to fill his seat, with a subsequent election for the unexpired term in 2014. Before you get too excited about the possibility of Keller being taken out this way, Meyers is not the first of her colleagues to give it a try.

Tom Price, currently the court’s third most senior member after Keller and Meyers, unsuccessfully ran against her in the Republican primary in 2000 and 2006.

“I’m used to people on my court running against me,” she said.

All I know is that the Democrats better have a decent candidate lined up to take her on. Another non-campaign from JR Molina isn’t going to cut it. Grits has more.

Another complaint filed against Keller

This ought to be interesting.

A civil rights group is asking the state to revoke the law license of a judge who has been a lightning rod in debates over the death penalty.

The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed a grievance Wednesday with the State Bar of Texas against Justice Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying she is unfit to retain her license to practice law. Records show Keller has been licensed since graduating from SMU’s law school in 1978.

The group alleges she is untrustworthy and dishonest, citing:

A review by the Texas Ethics Commission that found she failed to disclose several sources of income, as required by law.

Her refusal in 2007 to keep the court open after 5 p.m. at the request of lawyers drafting an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed that evening.

Statements she made in a federal lawsuit filed by Richard’s widow that purportedly contradict what she told the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Well, yeah. All of these things are true. I don’t have any particular reason to think the State Bar will hold her accountable, but what the heck. Having gotten off on a technicality before, I’m convinced she’s made of Teflon. Let’s just say I don’t have my hopes up for this.

It’s official, Keller skates

Can’t say I’m surprised. Bitterly disappointed, but not surprised.

A special court of review on Monday declined to reconsider a decision to void an ethics rebuke given to Sharon Keller for her role in a botched execution-day appeal, apparently ending the case against Texas’ top criminal judge.

Prosecutors had argued that the special court mistakenly dismissed the charges against Keller over a procedural error, ruling last month that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct chose the wrong form of punishment when it rebuked the judge in July. They asked the court to return Keller’s case to the commission.

But the special court — three appellate justices chosen at random to hear Keller’s appeal of the rebuke — rejected that request without comment.

I’ve got no snark left in the tank for this. When good things happen to bad people, all you can do is remind yourself that much like Sharon Keller herself, life is not fair. What else is there to say? Grits has more.

Maybe we’re not on the hook for Keller’s legal fees after all

Well, at least it’s a small consolation.

Clearing up confusion in its dismissal of an ethics rebuke against Judge Sharon Keller, a special court of review has issued an order that no longer makes taxpayers liable for Keller’s legal costs.

The court’s original Oct. 11 order said Keller could recoup legal costs from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct — estimated by her lawyer to be “in the six figures” but probably less than $1 million.

State law, however, specifies that attorney fees cannot be awarded in judicial conduct proceedings. The new order deletes the reference.

At least that takes a teeny bit of the sting out of this whole debacle. The motion to reconsider is still pending, and that’s the only real hope for some kind of accountability. The Chron calls on the panel to do the right thing:

A possible escape from this absurd conclusion is a motion for rehearing filed with the review panel by the commission’s executive director Seana Willing and special counsel John J. McKetta. They persuasively argue that the commission is empowered by the Texas Constitution to choose from a wide range of options in dealing with judicial misconduct, noting the constitution gives the commission the authority to issue a public warning “after such investigation as it deems necessary.” Also, Rule 10 of the Texas Rules for Removal or Retirement of Judges, used in proceedings such as Keller’s, states that in lieu of removal or retirement, “the commission may dismiss the case or publicly order a censure, reprimand, warning, or admonition.”

If the special court won’t allow the warning, the lawyers argue that the matter should at minimum be remanded to the Judicial Conduct Commission for consideration of one of the alternative rulings. We agree.

I had said before that Keller getting off on a technicality would be the ultimate in bitterly ironic endings. The ultimate in happily ironic endings would be for Keller to wind up suffering a real punishment as a result of appealing the wrist slap she originally received for being too harsh on her. A boy can dream, can’t he? Grits has more.

Maybe Keller hasn’t gotten away with it just yet

Could there possibly be some accountability in this world?

[The state Commission on Judicial Conduct]’s executive director, Seana Willing, asked the panel to reconsider its decision to dismiss the case, which stemmed from Keller’s actions on the day Michael Wayne Richard was executed in 2007.

The three-judge panel had ruled that because the commission had instituted formal proceedings against Keller, it didn’t have the authority to issue a public warning against her.

Instead, the panel said the commission’s only choices were public censure, which is more serious than a warning; a recommendation for her removal from office or her retirement; or dismissal of the case against her.

Because of that, the panel dismissed the case. The panel, called a special court of review, had been appointed by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson to consider Keller’s appeal.

Willing, in her motion for rehearing, disagreed with the decision about the commission’s authority to issue a warning.

But if that’s the case, she said, the appropriate thing would have been for the panel to send the case back to the commission so it could choose among its more limited options.

“The commission is capable of correcting its error, and on remand can apply the correct range of censure, removal, retirement, or dismissal this Court found is available in formal proceedings,” Willing wrote.

At this point, there’s nothing about this case that isn’t unprecedented, so who the hell knows what the panel may do. Speaking strictly as a non-expert non-lawyer, I don’t generally expect anybody to change their minds in this kind of situation. I do think Willing’s filing has merit, but then I think Keller should have been booted off the bench, so take that with a gigantic grain of salt. I figure this is just a setup to dash my hopes again, so I’ll save a step and not get them up in the first place. Go ahead and tell me if you think I’m being excessively cynical. Grits has more.

Keller takes a victory lap

She’s still blaming others and lying about the facts.

Texas’ top criminal judge said Tuesday that she feels vindicated that a special court dismissed a public reprimand of her for closing her court and preventing lawyers from filing a last-minute appeal hours before their client was executed.

“What happened to me shouldn’t happen to any judge,” Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller told The Associated Press during an interview at her courthouse office.

[…]

“I always felt once I got before a neutral judge, someone who hadn’t prejudged me, I’d be in pretty good shape,” she said. “And in fact, that’s how it turned out.”

Yes, thank God for her that she didn’t get in front of a judge like Sharon Keller, who would have given the back of her hand to her pathetic arguments. What a truly despicable human being she is.

Keller gets away with it

I’m thoroughly disgusted.

A special court of review Monday threw out an ethics rebuke given to Presiding Judge Sharon Keller for closing the Court of Criminal Appeals at 5 p.m. despite knowing that lawyers wanted to file an appeal for an inmate facing imminent execution in 2007.

[…]

Bringing the high-profile case to a swift and stunning end, the review court said the commission committed fatal errors that doomed its punishment of Keller, issued in the form of a July “public warning” that chastised the state’s highest criminal judge for violating court procedures and bringing discredit to the judiciary.

In essence, commissioners chose the wrong punishment, opting for a warning when state law and the Texas Constitution limited their options to a “censure,” a more serious penalty, the court ruled.

The judges said they did not address the merits of the charges against Keller but based their decision solely on the errors committed by the commission.

[…]

On Monday, the review court ruled that the type of proceedings used for Keller can only end in censure, not a public warning, and that the error was so fundamental that the only course was to dismiss all charges.

Censure, the court reasoned, requires “a finding of good cause” and seven votes from the 13-member commission, an independent state agency that investigates allegations of misconduct against Texas judges.

“Here, by failing to (authorize censure), the commission implicitly acknowledges that it did not find good cause for its actions or have the required votes to take those actions,” the judges wrote.

The review court also assessed “costs of the litigation” to the commission, which could make taxpayers liable for Keller’s legal fees.

So not only does Keller walk on a technicality, but we the people get to pay her lawyer bills. I’m going to be sick. Don’t anyone ever talk to me about “accountability” again. Grits has more, and Jeff Gamso gives it a proper summation.

Keller’s final appeal

You have to admire the tenacity, I’ll give her that much.

A special court of review plans to decide by Oct. 8 whether to dismiss a judicial ethics panel’s rebuke of Judge Sharon Keller or move forward with her appeal.

Keller appeared before the special court’s three-judge panel Monday to push for dismissal now, avoiding a three-day trial at the end of November over the rebuke from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

[…]

Chip Babcock, Keller’s lawyer, argued that the commission exceeded its authority in issuing the rebuke in the form of a “public warning.” Under Texas law and the state constitution, the commission could issue the harsher punishment of censure, but not a warning, he said.

“Your only choice is what we’re asking — dismiss this. Do not force Judge Keller to go through a new trial,” Babcock said during the hearing at the Texas Supreme Court near the Capitol.

But the three judges, chosen at random to sit on the review panel, steered Babcock into a discussion about ways to reclassify the rebuke to conform to state law or the constitution.

“Is it just a (correctable) error?” asked Justice Elsa Alcala of the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston.

The judges will render their decision by October 8. If they deny her motion to dismiss the original charges, the next hearing, which would basically be a re-litigation of the first one, would begin at the end of November. Grits was there for this, and he has more. I’ve previously suggested that Keller getting off on a technicality at the end of all this would be the bitterest irony I can imagine, but I must say that I can also imagine her ending up with the censure she should have gotten in the first place, all as a result of her refusal to leave well enough alone. That would be poetic, to say the least.

Keller’s appeal denied by Supremes

Poor baby.

The Texas Supreme Court this morning denied Judge Sharon Keller’s request to throw out last month’s public rebuke for her role in a botched 2007 death row appeal.

Later today, Keller’s lawyers are expected to file a separate appeal challenging the “public warning” given by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. That appeal will ask Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson to name, by random drawing, three appeals court justices to review whether the warning was justified.

Today is the deadline for requesting the three-judge panel, which apparently would hold its own hearing — with witnesses, cross-examination and exhibits. (I wrote about the confusion regarding this appellate process last month.)

The Supreme Court did not elaborate or give reasons for its 8-0 ruling. Justice Nathan Hecht, who successfully challenged a public rebuke by the commission in 2006, did not participate.

In other words, we get to re-litigate everything all over again. All because she refuses to accept the little wrist slap she was given. Great use of tax dollars there. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: Grits tries his best to make sense of it all.

SCJC contests Keller’s appeal

When last we met, Sharon Keller had appealed the curious “warning” she received from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Commission had acted “lawlessly” by issuing that particular sanction. The Commission has now fired back, saying essentially that it’s Keller who has violated protocol:

[I]nstead of appealing the commission’s decision through the usual route — requesting a new trial in front of a special tribunal appointed by the Supreme Court to reconsider its findings — Keller asked the high court to step in and evaluate the constitutionality of the sanction against her in an advisory opinion. She did that through a separate legal vehicle, called a writ of mandamus, which could allow the court to unilaterally reverse the commission’s decision. For Keller, there are two possible advantages in this approach: One, it saves her the time of going through the regular appeals process, and two, it puts her case in front of an all-Republican court that she might view as friendly.

The commission filed its response to Keller’s charges [Friday] morning. It says that even if it did act outside of the constitution — the commission maintains it did not — that Keller erred in asking the Supreme Court to intervene. That’s because Keller can only ask for a mandamus from the high court if she has already exhausted all other remedies under law. According to the commission, that hasn’t happened, because she hasn’t yet asked for a new trial from the specially appointed court to review her case. Keller has until the 30th day after the commission issued its decision — July 16, for those of you keeping track — to challenge it the old-fashioned way.

The SCJC’s response documents are here and here (both PDFs). I don’t think I can pinpoint exactly when this saga transitioned from melodrama to farce, but there’s no question we’re there now. Just sit back and enjoy the show, y’all.

UPDATE: Grits is taking my advice.

Keller appeals to Supreme Court

She’s still going for full vindication. Because as far as she’s concerned, she did nothing wrong.

[I]n a Supreme Court petition filed Thursday, Keller argued that the commission acted in a “lawless” manner because the Texas Constitution forbids it to issue such a warning.

“The order violates the constitution and is void. At the very least, it is a gross abuse of discretion,” wrote Keller lawyer Chip Babcock.

Babcock asked the court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the commission to expunge the warning from all records and to drop its charges against Keller. “The (commission) should not be given rein to wreak additional mischief,” he wrote.

Here’s the background on what this is about. All I can say is that I can’t think of a more bitterly ironic ending to this fiasco than Keller getting off on a technicality. Somebody pour me a drink.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

What is this “warning” of which you speak?

I’m glad to see that someone is asking questions about the warning that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct handed down to Sharon Keller.

Seana Willing, the commission’s examiner, contends in an e-mail that the order is based on a rule that does not comport with the Texas Constitution. As examiner in judicial misconduct cases, Willing acts as a prosecutor does in a criminal case, gathering and presenting evidence, often assisted by a private attorney.

Willing says, “I’m not criticizing the commission for what they did, but I don’t understand why they did what they did.” But Willing is concerned that the commission’s public warning in Keller could result in “bad law” and cost taxpayers more money.

She argues the commission should have based its order on the constitution, which allows the commission only three options after it begins formal proceedings against a judge and after a special master issues a report: issue a censure, recommend removal or retirement, or dismiss the charges.

But John J. “Mike” McKetta, the special counsel who prosecuted Keller, thinks the constitution allows the commission to take the action it did.

Bob Warneke, the commission’s counsel in Keller, says the commission’s position is that the order “speaks for itself.” He declines further comment.

The question is somewhat complicated, and turns on what the Texas Constitution outlines and what the rules for the SCJC specify. It’s a bit of a mess, actually. The Statesman has a good story on this as well, which includes the fact that Keller is the 96th judge to be examined by the Commission, and the first to receive this particular sanction. One thing I hope we all can agree on:

While [Keller defense attorney Chip] Babcock is discussing an appeal, how such an appeal would proceed is unclear. That’s because there are different procedures for appeals after formal and informal proceedings. A public warning typically follows informal proceedings, but in Keller’s case, the commission issued a public warning after formal proceedings.

When the commission issues a public warning to a judge in informal proceedings, that judge has the right to ask the state Supreme Court to appoint three appellate justices to a special court of review to hear the appeal. Willing says in an interview that in such appeals, the three-justice panel reviews the evidence de novo, amounting to a new trial.

But because the commission initiated formal proceedings against Keller, Keller already has had a trial — before the special master. Willing says a new trial would be a waste of resources. She is concerned about Keller getting what amounts to a second trial on the taxpayer’s dime.

“This is taxpayers’ resources being expended for a second trial,” Willing says. “I have a problem with that.”

Willing says that even though the commission does not pay Graves Dougherty legal fees for McKetta’s work as special counsel, it had to pay for the firm’s expenses in Keller, which totaled about $20,000 so far. “Are we going to have to do that again?” Willing asks.

I would hope the answer to that is No. At this point, it appears the only way for that to be ensured is for Keller to take her medicine and let it go already. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Thanks to Grits for the Texas Lawyer link.

“Warning” versus “reprimand”

Rick Casey answers a question that has been bugging me about the State Commission on Judicial Conduct ruling that issued a “public warning” to Sharon Keller.

A majority of the panel agreed that Keller needed to be sanctioned for ignoring the procedures she admitted to knowing. Because of the poor performance of Richard’s lawyers and evidence of other problems at the Court of Criminal Appeals itself, none of the commissioners argued to remove Keller from office.

Some did urge a “public reprimand,” a step up from the “warning.” But a reprimand results in a judge being ineligible to sit as a visiting judge after retiring from the bench.

One member asked why they would prohibit Keller from sitting later if they did not did not think she needed to be removed now. That argument carried the day for the lower sanction.

So a reprimand would have had a real-life effect on Keller, while a warning is, well, nothing more than the finger wag in her direction I thought it was. Grits points out the obvious flaw in the Commission’s reasoning.

It’s a bit of a strange argument: Why would they prohibit Keller from sitting later if they did not think she needed to be removed now? Another question might be, “Why would the mid-range verdict of a ‘public reprimand’ exist if that’s the commission’s basic calculus?” By that logic, judges don’t deserve a public reprimand until they behave so badly they warrant removal, at which point presumably the commission would instead vote to remove them. What a Catch-22! If, as I suspect, the same commissioners have voted to give other judges public reprimands, that seems a bit disingenuous.

I can actually see a strong argument for a public reprimand as the right outcome – not removing her now but preventing Keller from sitting as a visiting judge later. One might think it proper to allow voters to pass judgment on Keller instead of having her administratively removed, but down the line you wouldn’t want someone who would knowingly violate court rules to sit as a visiting judge.

He also notes that the “warning” option seems to have come out of nowhere, as it wasn’t given by the Commission as a possible outcome when they heard the two sides’ appeals. Has any other judge received a “warning” before? I can’t help but think that the Commission was just simply reluctant to actually punish Keller. Remember, she’s said if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t do anything differently. Given that so far all this has cost her is money, of which she has plenty, why would she see any need to change? No consequences means no need for introspection.

Keller gets “public warning” from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct

No, I don’t know what a “public warning” is, either. It’s the first time I’ve heard that phrase. But it’s what the Trib says Sharon Keller got as her “punishment” from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. What it sounds like to me is something less than a censure, which says to me they wimped out. But read the official doc for itself and see what you think.

UPDATE: Okay, I’ve finished reading the opinion, and it’s very clear that the SCJC holds Keller responsible for what happened. They called her conduct “willful or persistent” four times in their Conclusions Regarding Binding Obligations. I’m just puzzled by the “official warning”. Is this some legal term with which I’m unfamiliar? If you can, please help me understand that. Thanks.

UPDATE: From the Chron story:

Keller’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, said by telephone that she would appeal the decision. The appeal will be filed with a three-judge panel that will be appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, he said.

“Judge Keller is disappointed and shocked that the Commission has completely disregarded the findings of respected trial judge David Berchelmann, who presided over a four-day trial. It is perhaps not surprising that the same commission that made the charges finds them now to be valid despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Judge Keller looks forward to challenging this decision in the judicial system,” Babcock said in a statement.

Those who had complained of Keller were no happier.

“The people of Texas have been publicly warned today that we have an unethical judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who did not accord a person about to be executed with access to open courts or the right to be heard according to law. Yet she has been allowed to keep her job,” said Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network.

“Really, this is the worst-case scenario for Texas. Now we know the problems in the Texas death penalty system reach to Texas’ highest-ranking criminal appeals court, yet the judge who closed the doors to justice for this particular individual remains in office.”

Whatever, Chip. From where I sit, she got away with it. Have fun keeping this in the public eye. The campaign ads in 2012 are already writing themselves.

UPDATE: Grits points to this Statesman story, which notes that while an appeals process for these procedures was mandated by the Lege, the Supreme Court has not created that process yet. Even more fun! Grits thinks Keller is running in 2012, too.

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.